Title: Literary Theory: A Complete Introduction
Author: Sara Upstone
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publisher’s Blurb: Literary theory has now become integral to how we produce literary criticism. When critics write about a text, they no longer think just about the biographical or historical contexts of the work, but also about the different approaches that literary theory offers. By making use of these, they create new interpretations of the text that would not otherwise be possible. In your own reading and writing, literary theory fosters new avenues into the text. It allows you to make informed comments about the language and form of literature, but also about the core themes – concepts such as gender, sexuality, the self, race, and class – which a text might explore.
“… criticism, then, is where we find the interpretation of literature. Theory, in contrast, is where we find the tools to facilitate that interpretation.” (p. xii)
This little booked is packed with literary theory goodness. In 260 pages, Sara Upstone covers 19 different schools of theory. And while I don’t always agree with her assessments, or placement of movements within theories, Upstone’s overview is a great place for anyone to start learning about Literary Theory.
Having this at my fingertips has helped me figure out how Modernism and/or Post Modernism might apply to N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, an exercise assigned by my mentor. If Modernism is trying to make sense of the chaotic changes in a book, then The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate offer a lot to be interpreted through that lens. People of the Stillness must make sense of their new world as the rift and the coming of a Fifth Season wreak havoc.
Further, if Post Modernism is the questioning of reality itself, The Broken Earth Trilogy again offers an opportunity for that interpretation. Is Alabaster turning into a Stone Eater a reality? How it it possible he was taken into the middle of the planet by a Stone Eater and lived to come out the other side.
Mind you, these are just notions I’m playing with as I explore what both Modernism and Post Modernism mean to a critical reviewer and whatever book she happens to be reading.
My biggest quibbles with Literary Theory: A Complete Guide have to do with the dates used to place each school in a context. I will grant that with a degree in history, cultural anchors must exist in order for events to have a context within the greater stories. However, as a person with a background in history, I also know that dates aren’t hard and fast. World War I may be marked as beginning the day Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, but that’s not really what started it all.
I mention this only because I want to caution readers not to get stuck on the dates Upstone uses as absolutes. Surrealism, sequestered in the Modernism school of theory, had its precursors in authors like Arthur Rimbaud and André Breton.
And while I’m at it, if anything, Surrealism belongs with Post Modernism if we are to take the definition of Post Modernism at face value.
But, those are of little import when it comes to the actual information contained within this small volume. It’s best to consider the essence of the overviews of each school of theory. And by all means, we should give consideration to our own thoughts about what we’re reading.
Sara Upstone’s Literary Theory: A Complete Introduction has earned itself a permanent place on my reference shelf. If, that is, I can ever get it to leave my desk.
Drafted into the Supernatural Operations Corps in a new and dangerous world, Bookbinder finds himself in command of Forward Operating Base Frontier—cut off, surrounded by monsters, and on the brink of being overrun.
Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier is 2/3 in the Shadow Ops series. Shadow Ops: Control Point Review
Myke Cole’s second book in the Shadow Ops series is just as jam-packed as the first, Control Point, was. And it can be just as confusing.
I’ll be honest, I dug into Fortress Frontier for the simplest reason ever. I wanted to know what happened to Oscar Britton, last seen trying to make things right after he selfishly released Scylla who immediately laid waste to the SOC, opening it to invasion from the enemy indigents.
The things I had problems with in Control Point, bigotry and pick a frickin’ side would ya (Oscar Britton) are still present in Fortress Frontier. But I may have a clearer view of the larger picture being written in this series. Only book 3 Breach Zone will tell me if I’m close.
The heart of the Shadow Ops series is learning to cope with the changes brought about by unexpectable magical power manifestations. Rumors abound, and people are scared. Which leads to governmental manipulations and other ugliness well-known in this sort of fantasy world.
What Myke Cole brings to this is an inside look at what that chaos is like when the military and the governments try to handle change this massive. Cole’s writing keeps things tense, and moving along. The story he’s telling is one of great forces at play.
One of the big themes is how do you know what’s really the right thing to do, especially in the face of conflicting evidence and your own strong desires? Shadow Ops has a very strong X-Men vibe to it. People who manifest powers are subject to government control. Fear is a strong motivator.
In Frontier Force, Alan Bookbinder is a rule-following Pentagon bureaucrat who manifests an unusual power. Unlike Oscar Britton in Control Force, Bookbinder turns himself in and is subsequently sent to SOC in the Source.
Bookbinder and Britton have one thing in common, loyalty to the armed services, and to the government. The difference is Bookbinder maintains that loyalty even when his very life is threatened. Through this, Bookbinder becomes a leader people trust and follow into harrowing events.
Britton reappears in Fortress Frontier, but is pretty much as ineffective as he was in Control Force. He has agency, but every step of the way, bad decision making dogs him. The harder he tries to make up for his sloppiness, the worse it gets. It’s difficult to like or understand what Britton is about. His motivations are still selfish.
Bookbinder, on the other hand, takes the problem of being cut off from home and leads his troops through it. And part of Colonel Bookbinder’s journey is across the Source to the Indian/Hindu version of FOB. There he meets the Naga, snake like creatures who offer help but aren’t particularly forthcoming.
I wanted so much to like this book, and I did. I liked it much more than Control Point. But that doesn’t mean I can wholeheartedly recommend the series.
Still, Cole has earned enough of my readerly trust with his story-telling ability in The Armored Saint and The Queen of Crows that I’m willing to finish the trilogy with Shadow Ops: Breach Zone. Stay tuned.
Title: The Obelisk Gate
Author: N. K. Jemisin
Publisher: Orbit Books
Publisher’s Blurb: The season of endings grows darker as civilization fades into the long cold night. Alabaster Tenring – madman, world-crusher, savior – has returned with a mission: to train his successor, Essun, and thus seal the fate of the Stillness forever.
As I read The Obelisk Gate, it became deeply personal, often driving tears to well up as I felt the searing pain of bullies, including parents whose lives can only be understood in retrospect. Nassun’s search for identity and her confusing relationship with her father reminded me of my own confusing relationships. What matter the details, save that Nassun’s search for the warm glow of love she’d once felt transferred to another father figure? Nassun finds herself the smartest, most talented in her small class, and one mistake nearly undoes the entire sense of community she’s found. It is a lifetime hard task to come to terms with one’s self and the way others react. And it can be brutal, as it proves to be for Nassun. She, at least, has the orogene power within her to make it stop. Karma’s a bitch baby.
The Obelisk Gate is a coming together. Factions find each other, comms welcome new citizens, old friends are reunited. And yet, The Obelisk Gate is about division. Factions find each other but begin plotting their war against other factions, the new citizens in comms cause disruption and new lines are drawn.
At its core The Obelisk Gate is about politics. Political identity of the orogenes, who are welcomed with open arms in Castrima. Family identity as Essun’s daughter, Nassun, wrestles with who her parents are and what that means to an eleven-year-old girl. “Good” Guardian vs. “Not so Good” Guardian, but who determines good? Stone Eaters trying to set agendas. And a narrator who, it is revealed, plays an all too godly hand in Essun’s part in powering the obelisk gate, and catching the moon.
Nowhere is safe, everyone is struggling to dig in and survive the Season which, thanks to Alabaster’s creation of the Rift in The Fifth Season, will be the longest in history, lasting thousands of years.
We follow Nassun on the road with her father, Jija, going to a place he is convinced will cure her of her orogeny and return his little girl to him. His resentful anger gets in the way of their relationship, his narcissism does not allow him to see Nassun is right in front of him and doesn’t want to be cured. Her power is big, and she’s dedicated to learning everything she can about using it. Even after giving him a warning, showing him just how strong her power is and what she can do with it, Jija is still determined to make her into his ideal daughter. Things don’t go well for Jija, and Nassun has no regrets
In Castrima, Essun gets pulled into the politics of the comm. Seeking consensus and advice, Ykka is trying to keep human prejudices from becoming deathly problems. Suspicion builds as Essun’s self-control frays around the edges. Alabaster holds the key knowledge Essun needs to reshape the world and give everyone a chance to survive.
And a very changed Schaffa is at the comm, Found Moon, where Nassun ends up. His role with Essun, when she was Daya, is mirrored in his relationship with Nassun. Only now, he expresses regret for the many horrible things did in the name of the Fulcrum. In his work with the orogenes at Found Moon, and most especially with Nassun, he sets about making amends.
The Obelisk Gate is big and complex, dark and intense. Just as The Fifth Season was filled with bigotry and violence, so too is The Obelisk Gate. Orogeny stands as the proxy for all the ‘ism’s we face in our lives; sexism, homophobia, racism, classism, all of them. And under the stress of the Season, fractures become breaks.
At the equator, Nassun, Schaffa, and their group which includes at least one stone eater. In the south, Essun and her group introduced to us in The Fifth Season. Thousands of years of history come into play, new elements are introduced, and identity politics rise to a fevered pitch. One comm wants to absorb every resource it can while on raids. Castrima will have none of it. Stone eaters circle each other, and Nassun and Essun.
Alabaster’s final words for Essun are, “First a network, then the Gate. Don’t rust it up, Essun. Inno and I didn’t love you for nothing.” While saving Castrima, she understands what he means, and as Castrima packs up to move northward into a now vacant comm which will support them for years, Essun knows how to do what she needs to do.
It is Nassun who has the last word. “Tell me how to bring the moon home.” In The Stone Sky, it will be up to mother and daughter to catch the moon, settle the rivalries, and stop the Seasons. It will be an epic battle. Just as deep and intense as the preceding books. Just as complicated, and as simple as catching the moon.
Title: How Fiction Works
Author: James Wood
Publisher: Farrar Strouss Giroux (now MacMillan)
Publisher’s Blurb: James Wood ranges widely, from Homer to Make Way for Ducklings, from the Bible to John le Carré, and his book is both a study of the techniques of fiction-making and an alternative history of the novel. Playful and profound, How Fiction Works will be enlightening to writers, readers, and anyone else interested in what happens on the page.
Being a reviewer is writing, “This female character isn’t very nice which means she’s not a very good person and that makes it hard to read.” Being a critical reviewer is writing, “this hard to like character takes everything we know about the anti-hero trope and turns it upside down, to the purpose of saving the Queen from near certain death.” Knowing how craft works is the difference.
In How Fiction Works, James Wood writes, “… reading for significance is always a negotiation between our excited discovery of the work and our comprehension of the work after the excitements of discover have faded a bit.” We could have read Goon Squad for the sheer brilliance of the story itself, and left it at that. A lot of readers have. But because we look for significance in what we read, we cogitated and poked around.
Knowing about the craft of writing allows me to ask the questions which allow me to get beneath the surface of a work. In working through Goon Squad three times, I found questions I didn’t know to ask, and ways to answer those questions. Because I am working my way away from Reader Response, and learning to be think critically about a work, I need to know about craft.
When I look for reviews about a product, I look for the ones which tell me what the craftsmanship is like. “This insta-pot is put together well. The display is easy to read, the settings are easy to set, the lid closes tightly, and the removable pot makes it easy to clean up.” As opposed to, “I love this insta-pot and would buy again.” I’m not buying an appliance based on the last review, unless I know the person making the recommendation well.
Thinking critically about a book is recognizing how the book was written, the choices an author made to tell the story, and being able to write a more informed review. As to credentials, people will trust reviewers who know about the craft of writing more than the one who only wants to recap and express fondness, or dislike, for the author and the genre.
When I review a book critically, I want to make it clear that I know something about the writer’s craft, and that I have some understanding of how craft serves the story. I want my own writing to reflect that I know something about using craft and strive for thoughtful, well-crafted reviews. Having this knowledge leads to being included in conversations which go deeply, and being taken seriously enough to be invited again.
Instead of saying to myself, “Oh I know I can do better than that,” when I read reviews, I now look for reviews which go deeper and encourage myself to strive for that level of writing. For me, it’s the difference between saying “I loved this book and if you love zombies you will too,” and, “Diana Rowland’s White Trash Zombie series gives us a look at how her protagonist gains agency and self-esteem through being turned into a zombie and finding a power structure which supports her in her growth.”
“124 was spiteful,” is one of the best opening lines of a book ever. Reader response would figure out that 124 was an address and the house at that address was haunted, and they might leave it at that. Critical review will delve deeper, “Why is the ghost at 124 spiteful? What is it doing to tell us, the reader, why it’s behaving in such a way? Why did Toni Morrison use the word spiteful instead of something like angry?” Even further a critical reviewer would be able to point to other examples of this deliberate type of disorientation in storytelling. Once we learn about the craft, we can find the patterns in other stories and discuss why disorientation is good craft. We also learn when it’s been applied well and when it doesn’t work. This also gives us credence as reviewers, and provides evidence we speak from authority when writing a critical review.
Knowing about craft elevates the discussion and makes the experience of reading, and writing, richer. How Fiction Works provided me with more tools with which to think about reading. Plus it gave me the phrase “flaneurial realism.” to cherish.
Title: Shadow Ops: Control Point
Author: Myke Cole
Publisher: Ace (now Penguin Random House)
Publisher’s Blurb: Lieutenant Oscar Britton of the Supernatural Operations Corps has been trained to hunt down and take out people possessing magical powers. But when he starts manifesting powers of his own, the SOC revokes Oscar’s government agent status to declare him public enemy number one.
Shadow Ops: Control Point is 1/3 in the Shadow Ops series.
“They want me to kill a child,” is the opening line in Shadow Ops: Control Point, which just sucked me in. That is a “wait, WTF is going on here” first line if I’ve ever read one.
And it just spins out of control, fast and furious from there. Control Point blazes hot, and scorches anyone in its path. It’s hard to keep track of what’s going on, and who’s doing what. Oh, and who’s the bad guy … no wait … good … no wait …
Oscar Britton has the rug yanked out from beneath him too many times, and after a while it gets tiresome. I feel sorry for the guy, he has to cope with so much immediate change it fucks with his decision making process at every turn. Everything he thought he knew and a life time of training are called into question the second he manifests a magical power he doesn’t understand and is forbidden by the government.
All the flip-flopping isn’t necessarily Britton’s fault, he’s just written that way. Honestly, it’s hard to have much faith in Britton, the government (contractor or otherwise), anyone who says they know how to help or fix things (except maybe for the token good guy Goblin called Marty).
At every turn, Britton is put in situations which cause him to question everything all at once, again. It gets to be a bit much. Maybe having a bomb implanted in his heart just causes Britton to make extremely bad decisions which lead to even more death and destruction until almost everything he’s come to depend on is gone, or dead.
And we, the readers, are left hanging in an unfinished story about a man in search of his own redemption. Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier, here I come.
Truth be told, I have too much other work to be doing than reading Brokaw’s somehow bland recounting of some of the pivotal moments and people in the Sixties. There are undoubtedly better books to read about this time period.
Author: William Gibson
Publisher’s Blurb: Before the Internet was commonplace, William Gibson showed us the Matrix—a world within the world, the representation of every byte of data in cyberspace. Henry Dorsett Case was the sharpest data-thief in the Matrix, until an ex-employer crippled his nervous system. Now a new employer has recruited him for a last-chance run against an unthinkably powerful artificial intelligence. With a mirror-eyed girl street-samurai riding shotgun, he’s ready for the silicon-quick, bleakly prophetic adventure that upped the ante on an entire genre of fiction.
Author: William Gibson
Publisher’s Blurb: A corporate mercenary wakes in a reconstructed body, a beautiful woman by his side. Then Hosaka Corporation reactivates him, for a mission more dangerous than the one he’s recovering from: to get a defecting chief of R&D—and the biochip he’s perfected—out intact. But this proves to be of supreme interest to certain other parties—some of whom aren’t remotely human…
Mona Lisa Overdrive
Author: William Gibson
Publisher’s Blurb: Enter Gibson’s unique world—lyric and mechanical, sensual and violent, sobering and exciting—where multinational corporations and high tech outlaws vie for power, traveling into the computer-generated universe known as cyberspace. Into this world comes Mona, a young girl with a murky past and an uncertain future whose life is on a collision course with internationally famous Sense/Net star Angie Mitchell. Since childhood, Angie has been able to tap into cyberspace without a computer. Now, from inside cyberspace, a kidnapping plot is masterminded by a phantom entity who has plans for Mona, Angie, and all humanity, plans that cannot be controlled . . . or even known. And behind the intrigue lurks the shadowy Yazuka, the powerful Japanese underworld, whose leaders ruthlessly manipulate people and events to suit their own purposes . . . or so they think.
“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts. … A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.” (Neuromancer, p. 51)
This from a man who sat down at a typewriter and wrote what’s considered the seminal work of cyberpunk. On a typewriter. Gibson didn’t own a computer at the time, but he had this idea, which he almost gave up on after seeing Blade Runner.
Even in 2019, when cyberspace is a part of everyday vocabulary, and most have a general idea of what it means, none of us knows what it looks like. Gibson got there first, hypothesizing what cyberspace would look, and feel, like and how humans might interact with it.
“[Case] jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix.” (Neuromancer, p. 6) Emotionally, it was “bodiless exultation,” (ibid, p. 7). “Nonspace of the matrix, the interior of a given data construct possessed unlimited subjective dimension.” (ibid, p. 63)
Disembodied, nonspace, grey, blob, or blotch. All descriptors for that which cannot be described. The books in this trilogy are filled with non-descriptive descriptions of what cyberspace looks like, and feels like. A “cowboy” jacks in by plugging a cable from the computer into a jack/port in their neck. It made complete sense to me while I was reading. Trying to describe it in my own words is difficult and stultifying. How do you describe a banana to someone who’s never seen one?
Gibson’s writing is dense and often difficult to follow, which makes sense if you’re trying to describe something undescribable. He only succeeds because he has a larger canvas to work with.
In Neuromancer, AIs in search of their other half involve complex human machinations and architectural wonders which only work in space. The AI Wintermute sets things in motion, leading Case and Molly on a merry search for its other half, the AI Neuromancer. Wintermute is manipulative, pushing humans to do its bidding. The reader’s mind isn’t the only one blown.
Two years later, in Count Zero, Gibson still grapples with describing the indescribable. We bump against a more terrestrial landscape to set the stage, but are no closer to understanding what cyberspace is.
Vodou gods appear in cyberspace so as to interface with the humans inside the matrix. It’s rumored the superconsciousness is losing bits, explaining the multiple gods encountered. Or maybe it’s another AI shoving its non-existent weight around.
Again, Gibson uses vague notions to describe what it’s like, “…a flickering, nonlinear flood of fact and sensory data, a kind of narrative conveyed in surreal jump cuts and juxtapositions. … [changing direction randomly] with each pulse of nothingness. The data had never been intended for human input.” (Count Zero, pp.23-24)
And yet, humans keep trying to be a part of the landscape. Building better and bigger tools to get inside, navigate, and stay inside. Bobby Newman, aka Count Zero from Count Zero is comatose and jacked into an infinitely large cyberdrive called an aleph, a mathematical concept I cannot even begin to wrap my brain around. It’s not infinity, it’s something else. Theoretically, the aleph has uploaded the Count’s personality leaving enough room to evolve with access to all data in the known universe.
Gibson’s idea of cyberspace involves direction (up and downs), grids, and definitively shaped objects. More than that though, he uses nothingness, everythingness, all-at-once-ness.
So how does one explain the unexplainable, the invisible, the not physically there presence? Gibson’s struggle continues to be technology’s struggle. VR and AI are upon us, and engineers have to develop vocabularies to go along with it. When all else fails, we fall upon what has gone before.
William Gibson wrote the framework, extrapolating to an existence which has yet to come. Twenty years ago, the Wachowski siblings gave us The Matrix trilogy which carried the idea of machine overlords enslaving humanity in virtual reality as an energy supply.
Here too, there’s a struggle with vocabulary, although visual media has the ability to present a form of cyberspace which can be seen and, therefore, believed. The Wachowskis and their matrix came 15 years after Neuromancer. Gibson was at the forefront, and is given credit for coining the term and pushing us to think about a computer network’s relationship with humans. The Wachowskis gave us one version of what that relationship might be. There are many other versions, and we can’t possibly know which one is “right,” or “wrong,” because we’re still trying to describe the invisible undescribable space between bits of data.