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sologdin

sologdin

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Middlemarch: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Reviews and Criticism (A Norton Critical Edition)
Bert G. Hornback, George Eliot
The Magic Mountain
Thomas Mann, John E. Woods
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel García Márquez
Prince of Thorns - Mark  Lawrence Liked it sufficiently well to finish it in less than a day.

Decently disciplined first person perspective.

Setting is far future/dying earth, apparently in northern France, "ten thousand years" out from Thales or so (114), and complete with guidepost references to Sun Tzu, Plato, and Euclid--but also quickly, and significantly, to Karl Popper and Bertrand Russell.

Definitely reminiscent of Gene Wolfe, in substance if not in style, from the New Sun books. (The narrator is, like Severian, revealed to be the writer of the novel, which is his memoir, and may or may not be entirely reliable.)

Some commentators have suggested that the narrator suffers from psychosis or madness or whatever, but I respectfully disagree. The narrator certainly is involved in the commission of numerous horrible war crimes or crimes against humanity (it's hard to discern which, as the context is unclear), and he definitely has an attitude about the crimes that is not humanitarian. The narrator is however always calculating and aware (externally imposed amnesias notwithstanding), and the violence is principled, rather than crazed.

By "principled," I mean that the narrator is aware that:

"War is a thing of beauty, as I've said before, and those who say otherwise are losing. I put a smile on, though it didn't fit me. 'Brother Makin, it seems the Count has made a move. It behoves us, as fellow soldiers, to appreciate his artistry'" (35).

The suggestion here is that the long history of the art of war--from Sun Tzu, Frontinus, and Caesar, through Maurice, Mushashi, and Machiavelli, to Napoleon, Clausewitz, Jomini, and Delbruck--is not only a matter of strategy, but also a matter of aesthetics. The text makes an argument from the opening that "War, my friends, is a thing of beauty" (2), which it asks us to appreciate. (Even though Sun Tzu is cited several times in the text, the narrator does not appear to be an adherent of Master Sun's doctrine at the opening of the story--but we may track some developments consistent with the ancient ping fa as the novel develops.) I've only briefly thought about this, but it may be worthwhile to mine out the standard writings on strategy for their aesthetic principles and then compare those principles to the text's herein.

I don't agree with the narrator's underlying principle, but it's there, and is worthy of interrogation. To wit: the aestheticization of belligerence is a standard of fascist ideology, and the narrator likewise adopts Mr. Mussolini's distaste for intellectuals in his allegiance to the so-called cult of action (70-71). (Naturally, to suggest that the character is fascistic is not to impugn the writer or the text, which would be somewhat childish.)

In this same connection, and though it may be spoilery to state, the narrator is also revealed to be controlled--to be the agent of another, rather than a more basic social causality that we might find in some versions of mechanistic determinism, though the text may bear out that reading, also. The text meditates on the notion of human (ontological, as opposed to political) freedom insofar as the crimes committed by the narrator, despite their manifest actus reus, may in fact lack mens rea because of the agency relationship, which appears to be a prime mover of the macronarrative. As the story is not yet finished, it's hard to predict where this meditation will conclude, though we may make some assumptions when the text notes, albeit through a character's polemic, that "free will must be taken" (168).

One thing that I absolutely loved was the description of a certain horrible act of genocide late in the story as "an invisible hand with fatal fingers" (238), which is a conceptual description, surely, that accompanies very well the nuts-and-bolts factual description. A finer mocking ripsote to Adam Smith i have not read.

I did get a bit annoyed with the seeming homages to George Martin, which were more phrasing nods than anything substantive (the concept "game of thrones" expressly shows up on several occasions as a geopolitical master figure). The text further was on the short side--which is a testament to the quality of what is in fact presented--but I still wanted more--important things happened very quickly. It's good pacing, on the one hand, but perhaps a bit more narrative, character, and setting development would be great in later installments, on the other hand (certainly the author doesn't control these things completely, especially in a debut).

Some folks have beat up on the author, the text, and the fans of same for the perceived gender and race politics of the text; I make no intervention on those counts. I do note, however, that the text does present the one-sided narrative (which is what necessarily happens in a text with a single first-person narrator, of course) of a ruling class thug. In doing so, the text partakes in the long tradition of placing the narration in the hands of the rulers, rather than the ruled. There is certainly a counter-tradition wherein members of the ruled (the bucolic virginal farmboy stories, from Tolkien to Star Wars to Robert Jordan) through their heroic Nietzschean willpower become part of the ruling class.

Both traditions of narration are rhetorical devices that give the narrator, and thereby the reader, relatively unobstructed access to the center of gravity of world-shaping events. It is of course a blow to realism to some extent, as a reader will rarely if ever have any access whatsoever to the corridors of power. This rhetorical mechanism is the only item that I'd consider "escapist" in such narratives, as it allows the reader to escape the broken promise of western democracy, and actually have some seemingly meaningful participation in the unfolding of the world (albeit a fictional one). I'm not sure how to replace this rhetorical device with something different, so it's not something that I'd hold against the author or the text--and, even were it easily replaced, it makes little sense to malign the writer for a convention that covers nearly the whole of speculative fiction. Nonetheless, neither tradition nor counter-tradition is consistent with egalitarianism--but that's political critique that is both inchoate at this time and ultimately irrelevant to my appreciation of the text.

Overall, recommended for readers of Sun Tzu, people who support the right to freedom of expression for leucrota, and lonely artificial intelligences.