Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Man in the High Castle finished; Affinity started and finished; about to start Kavalier and Clay

After I finished The Man in the High Castle, I went right out to the library and got Affinity, and became so engaged in it that I couldn't make myself sit down and write a blog post. So now I'm doing a double post to take care of both of these titles.


The Man in the High Castle is by Philip K. Dick, who I like quite a lot. I started out this project reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and vowing to read more of his work when I finish this list. He does a few things in that book that I tend to like in general - mainly, the  book is clearly about Big Ideas but also allows you to draw your own conclusions about them. It's open to interpretation.

So is The Man in the High Castle. It takes place in an alternate history in which the Axis won WWII, and in which the world is divided between rule by Italy, which has very little territory and influence in a post-war world; Japan, which controls quite a lot including California, where most of the story takes place; and the Nazis, who not surprisingly are becoming a bit uncomfortable with sharing all this stuff with Italy and Japan.

In post-occupation California in 1962, most people are using the I Ching daily as a result of Japanese cultural influence. There are numerous story lines going on simultaneously that intersect in a variety of ways, but it's the I Ching that almost everyone has in common. That, and a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which is illegal to own in the United States and is an alternate history of their alternate history world, in which the Allies won WWII. Despite the fact that it's illegal, practically everyone is reading it.

Other than that, there's not much I can say about the plot that gives you a sense of the book. There are numerous themes going on, including a lot of discussion about things that are counterfeit and real and the value of one over the other. There's the issue of creating new American products in California when the only things the Japanese want from the Americans are the artifacts of their past - comic books, Mickey Mouse watches, etc. There's the basic falsehood of ethnic superiority, which is explored through Nazi and Japanese influence, as well as the resentment that the occupied Americans have against their captors. And there's the theme of alternate realities, explored through the story's own alternate reality and the additional alternate reality of the story within the story.

These are interesting ideas, and I like that the author always lets us figure this out for ourselves. I believe this is probably why I like his writing so much and dislike Robert Heinlein in a way that seems directly opposite - all the long winded lectures in Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land direct you towards the precise meaning of the book, in an undeniable way. I prefer Philip K. Dick's style, which lets us interpret his work as we please. After all, we tend to interpret these major themes he discusses based on our own thoughts and experiences. In a book in which the author tells you exactly what to get from it, I tend not to spend any time considering the meaning of it (why bother. The book has already told you what you are meant to think). I just start judging based on what I think of the idea being pushed - not to mention the fact that I dislike the writing style of any story in which the author's point of view is directly stated.

However, despite the interesting themes, I thought this book ended surprisingly abruptly, and I felt like a lot of the story lines were never fully tied up, or did not end in a satisfying way. According to wikipedia, Philip K. Dick used the I Ching to write this book and stopped it when the I Ching had nothing more to say. I feel like this contributes to the book leaving off so abruptly, and I'm dissatisfied with the open ending.

AffinityI went from that straight into a book that was not open ended at all, and which really surprised me in the end. Affinity is by Sarah Waters. I read her book Tipping the Velvet previously, and had a general sense of what to expect - she's a modern day author who sets her stories in Victorian England, giving them a delightful blend of the things that we still find alluring about the Victorians, without also engaging in the dry and long-winded prose of that time period. She also writes mostly about women and specifically about lesbians.
As it turns out, going into Affinity with the expectations set up by Tipping the Velvet  really blind-sided me. Tipping the Velvet was an adventurous tale, in which a woman discovers her sexual identity while going from working in the theater, to prostituting herself to survive, to become a kept woman for another woman, to working within a political labor movement. It does the exact opposite of the typical Victorian novel by exploring the world of someone who is not a member of the upper class without also trying to convince you that people like her are charity cases. It demonstrates what a woman in her station might need to do to survive - but also that a woman with gumption might be able to deal with it pretty well.
Affinity, on the other hand, is about a member of the upper class who visits a women's prison specifically as a sort of charity work - it's expected that being exposed to a lady will help with the reformation of the prisoners. We learn over time that the main character, Margaret, suffers from depression and attempted suicide prior to the events of the novel. Her depression results from her love affair with a woman named Helen, and from the end of their relationship which was soon followed by Helen marrying Margaret's brother. Through volunteering at the prison, Margaret meets and becomes enchanted with Selina Dawes, a spiritualist who was arrested for assault in a situation that occurred while she was channelling a spirit, in which she claims that she was wrongly accused for things that were done by the spirit.
This story is much darker than Tipping the Velvet was, partly because of the prison setting, and partly because of the gloomy weather - the description of the heavy fogs that infected Victorian London due to industrial pollution makes it sound like Margaret is living in the nuclear winter of a post-apocalyptic world. A great deal of the darkness comes from the fact that the story is mostly narrated by a woman who is suffering from severe depression; where Tipping the Velvet's Nancy maintains a good disposition based on her willingness to make due with whatever happened to her, Affinity's Margaret sees herself as a prisoner of the social standards of Victorian upper class society. Having read only these two stories, I can't help but wonder if this is a statement by Waters about the upper class versus the working class.
The story involves a few elements that I expected based on Tipping the Velvet: there is a lesbian relationship. The main character has suffered a failed relationship with a woman who was unwilling to go against social standards for love. The main character experiences a painful breakup and then falls in love again (instead of just pining away as if that one love was all that she could ever have).
But overall, the fact that there are lesbian characters is just as much a circumstance of the author's own background as the fact that they are also British. It's not so much a lesbian story as it is a story with lesbians in it.
I'm also not fully sure it's technically a work of either fantasy or horror. It's definitely a Gothic Victorian tale, but the actual supernatural elements are somewhat dubious. The main character is being treated for her depression with chloral and laudanum which - it becomes eventually clear - she is taking in increasing doses, and it's difficult to tell reality from her own delusions.
Regardless of the story's fidelity to the theme of this list, it was a very good read and engaging from start to finish. Waters has a lush descriptive style that gives Victorian England a textured realness. The book also seems to be heading towards an obvious conclusion, and then surprisingly deviates from that in the end. Overall it was an engaging tale with a very solid ending, which made up for my dissatisfaction with The Man in the High Castle's inconclusive ending.

Next up I'll be reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. This one has been listed as a favorite by a number of authors I like, but other than that I don't know a thing about it.