Does a Cyclops make a book Science Fiction or Fantasy? Part III

If you missed them, check out Part I and Part II!

Now, on with the review!

Mirkwood Schmirkwood: A few days a week, publishers send the store a box of uncorrected proofs, advance reader copies of books, for us to read before they are published. I’ve found a few great books through these ARCs, including Gary Corby’s Marathon Games. In January, I opened a box of books and pulled out something interesting; The Vorrh. The title alone caught my eye at first and I flipped it over for a quick plot summary.

I smiled large and announced to my co-workers, “Oh this has Andy written all over it.” A quick summary from the back promised a mythical forest in colonial Africa filled with demons and angels, a Cyclops raised by robots, and the blending of fiction and real historical figures.

Fantasy, a little bit of science fiction and a dash of historical fiction- just the way I like my books. You can keep your stories of a husband losing his job and confronting who he is and what kind of man he wants to be, I’ll take the Cyclops, thank you very much.

The author’s bio also caught my eye. “B. Catling is a poet, sculptor, painter, and performance artist.” That was interesting. Catling is obviously an artist fueled by creativity; I anticipated a wide breath of imagination and passion in this work.

Well, The Vorrh certainly has that, but it felt more like an art exhibition than a complete novel. Did I like the book? Yes. But I didn’t love it.

Let’s discuss the plot before moving on. The book opens with four lengthy quotes, an important part of any book worth reading and pondering. They act almost like acknowledgements in a work of non-fiction; a bridge not only into what the work will explore, but a glimpse into where the author drew both inspiration and what the author feels is most important to frame the work. Catling quotes Zen in the Art of Archery, German Ethnologist Leo Frobenius’ Paideuma, Heart of Darkness and Rudyard Kipling’s Gertrude’s Prayer.

We then open with a “naked and shriveled” Frenchman in a hotel bathroom. Great. My favorite. The man is revealed to be Raymond Roussel, a real life French writer and poet. He then dies.

So! Off to an exciting start.

I realized something very quickly when I began the novel:

It was going to take 100 or so pages to really get into. This is a result in the novel focusing more on character than plot. In fact, the book lacks a traditional plot; each character plays out their own story, with almost all keeping The Vorrh, the dense magical forest, as a center of their story. Books like this always take a while to immerse the reader because they rely on character development but  take a long time to introduce and develop each character.

This is not a bad thing, but it can be a bit tedious. Imagine a story that is centered more on plot than characters; something like The Empire Strikes Back. We are introduced to many characters through the story, but we see how each relates to the plot set out before us; that is, we are not introduced to Yoda at the beginning of his story, but rather in the midst of a plot involving Luke. We as an audience must identify with Yoda’s character quickly and are allowed to do so because he plays a direct part in the action currently going on. Catling’s novel does just the opposite because, well, there really is no action at hand. There are events, but not an over-arching conflict that each character is introduced to, so we don’t have to immediately connect with a character.

In the first chapter, Catling writes in first person. This is reserved for one specific character, a renegade British soldier named Peter Williams, but this doesn’t follow through the whole book.

Joining Williams in the forest is a native man who led a rebellion against the army Williams served, Tsungali. Also in the forest is William Maclish, leader of the slave workforce of the forest, the Orm. Part of his success he owes to Doctor Hoffman, who, in a strange scene, offers Maclish’s miscarried baby to the Orm, gaining their trust for Maclish.

There is also the mysterious Sidrus, a Voldemort-like man who holds some sort of incredible powers, but also wants Williams to cross the forest safely.

On the outskirts of the forest lies the fictional city German mercantilist city of Essenwald (the words for ‘eat’ and ‘forest’ combined in German). In it, we have: Ishmael, a Cyclops who lives in a large, abandoned house and is raised by robots, Ghertrude Tulp, a rich young woman who discovers Ishmael, Sigmund Mutter, caretaker of the mysterious house, Cyrena Lohr, a blind woman who finds her fate intertwined with Ghertrude and Ishmael.

Catling uses two real people from the time period, Raymond Roussel, a real life French writer and explorer and Eadweard Muybridge, a real life English photographer.

Eadweard Muybridge and Raymond Roussel.

The plot of the novel moves in different places; we follow Peter Williams as he attempts to transverse the Vorrh using his bow, once his priestess wife, as a guide. He is pursued by Tsungali, hellbent on stopping Williams, and by Sidrus, hellbent on stopping Tsungali.

Meanwhile, in Essenwald, Ghertrude discovers Ishmael the cyclops one day after breaking into the house where he is kept. She boards off the robots who raised him in the basement and becomes his teacher. But Ishmael wants more, and a mardi-gras style festival allows him the chance to get out, in disguise, where he changes Cyrena’s life in a dramatic way. They have their share of dealings with the Doctor and Maclish, who, deep in the forest, face a slave revolt.

Catling also turns to a bit of historical fiction, using the aforementioned Raymond Roussel and his expedition into the forest. He leaves his assistant, Charlotte, behind and enters the forest with a local guide. When Roussel is separated from his guide, he finds the forest takes more than it gives.

Then there is Muybridge. Catling weaves fact and fiction into the photographer’s life as he quests for a life devoid of other humans but full of perfect photography.

To go into more detail about each plot would end in me giving you a play by play of each chapter, which is something I’m not going to do. The Vorrh is one of those books where a good deal happens but it’s not all connected or entirely clear what everything means. There is a little bit of everything in the book; there is some action, some adventure, romance, history, class struggle, science, fantasy, religious allegory, horror, and a bit of comedy. Catling is adept at bringing these elements together, and it is part of what makes the book interesting, it’s just that the novel doesn’t do any of this really well. I felt immersed in the book, but not connected to it.

Catling’s characters all seem particularly cold and distant. I found the only character I liked was Williams, but his story was sparse and a bit slow moving for me to really connect. In fact, connection is something that The Vorrh severely lacked for me; the book has so many plots that intertwine, but there is no sense of an overarching through-line between the characters. The themes and imagery run through everyone’s story, but I really missed some sort of large climax that touched on every character.  Even the characters have a hard time connecting to each other. Each one comes across as sort of an ugly portrait of themselves.

This ugliness is frustrating because Catling can certainly immerse the reader in the picture he creates. He is a great writer who colors his landscapes and characters in so much depth, but the plot does not share this depth. My only complaint about Catling’s writing is that it tends to be unnecessarily graphic and crass sometimes. I’m not a squeamish person when reading, violence doesn’t bother me, but there was one scene that was so graphic in its violence it left me feeling uncomfortable. What’s worse is that I finished this scene riding the subway to work and had to leave the train as I closed the book on the violence passage. I needed to keep reading to reset my brain a little bit, but I instead went into work with this feeling washing over me. It was a strange first half hour at the store.

There was no other time when the violence got to out of hand for me, but I did feel that sometimes Catling was being a bit too graphic for the shock value. The best example is a scene that takes place in a bar. Sidrus has come trying to find the assassin on Williams’ trail.  In the midst of the action of this scene, Catling stops to enter the mind of a sleeping dog. The passage is awkward, and I quote it to show this, “The tension in the stuffy room was congested with human silence and the twitching of the dog’s dream. Sweet pushing inside her pushing pumping the bitch clasped hard by me pushing over and over again…its smell twisted backwards my cock facing out she the other side of me now tail to tail pumping…uncontrollable reflex air fuck bending bending fucking…” and so on. This dream goes on and on and while I must say that Catling captures what a dog’s brain must surely be like, the dream advances the plot in no way and is a jarring interruption. It feels placed there for shock value; as if Catling just wanted to find a reason to write ‘cock’ and ‘fuck’. Perhaps it fits into the theme of nature’s dominance the book has, but if this scene were not in the book, we would not lose anything. We then move on from the dog after that, its psyche never explored again. What was the point of that?

What do you dream of, oh Noodle?

I found myself asking that question a few times while reading and it led me to a frustrating conclusion. Nothing in this book is an accident; there is a definite structure to the way Catling wrote the book. Each choice I had a problem with was deliberate. This may be his first book, but Catling comes from a background as an artist, and it is clear that he put a good deal of thought into how he wanted to book to be constructed. What frustrates me is that although I recognize this, but it does not make the book better for me.

That’s the funny thing about art; some people find a real connection to a piece of art that others don’t. Much in the same way a record can be a friend’s favorite but just seem okay to you. It’s the same way I feel about Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys. It’s not that I don’t like it and it is a great album, it just doesn’t touch me in any way. I just think it’s a solid album. I feel a deep connection to Kurt Vonnegut’s work, but some people can’t really connect to it.

I can see that Catling put a good deal of effort into constructing all elements of this novel in a certain way, it’s just not something that pleased me artistically. I enjoyed the book and I am glad I read it, but I most likely won’t pick it up again. It was good, but not a favorite of mine.

I found that after reading it, I just couldn’t place my finger on what Catling was trying to say. There was a definite theme of Man vs. Nature, a one sided bout in Catling’s book that he used to drive home the point that no one, especially humans can conquer nature; nature is constantly conquering the characters in this book and they are powerless to stop it. There was also some sort of religious symbolism I couldn’t quite grasp. In the novel, it is said that Adam, the first man, lives deep in the Vorrh and that creatures called the Erstwhile are actually angels. I felt these plot points were added in to flesh out the world a bit more but failed in doing so. It seemed more like the angels were dangerous and that Adam was bigfoot; does this make religion also no contender for nature? Does Catling mean the two manipulate each other? Again, it was lost to me.

It wasn’t the sort of book I found fun to ruminate upon after I finished as well. Unlike Murakami’s work, which also leaves the reader with the same sense of loose ends, The Vorrh was too muddled for me to take anything from.

My version did not come with an introduction, but I did find the book’s introduction, written by Alan Moore, who says of the book “Easily the current century’s first landmark work of fantasy and ranking among the best pieces every written in that genre…” I highly, highly disagree with this. We’re fifteen years into this century, forget that fact that I don’t think this is that epic of a work, we haven’t had one landmark piece of fantasy? I know a few writers who would disagree with that. I also don’t feel it is among the best pieces ever written in the genre. It isn’t even a truly fantasy; it bridges a few different genres. I feel that it certainly doesn’t hold up to Tolkien or Pratchett or even the world J.K. Rowling created.

I DON’T KNOW WHAT LITERARY GENRE I FIT INTO!! I’M SO MAD I THINK I’LL EAT A GREEK HERO.

And yet, even with all of this, I must say I do recommend the book if it sounds like something you’ll like. If any of the characters or plot elements I discussed intrigue you in any way, pick it up. It’s not one I’ll recommend to just anyone, but The Vorrh  is the kind of book that has the potential to make a large impact on the right person. Somewhere, sometime, this book will be someone’s favorite book. For me, it’s just a novel. It reads like Heart of Darkness with a hefty dose of strange and wonderful characters.

And so, in the end, where does The Vorrh fall? Science Fiction or Fantasy? It’s really both. I don’t think there is enough of either genre in the story to tilt the scales. There is the highly imaginative setting of the forest and the creatures within, but there is also a good deal of technology. Ishmael the Cyclops may make it seem like fantasy, but he is one of many characters and doesn’t stand out enough to make it pure Fantasy. I don’t think it has to be either, and that’s where the strength of the novel lies. Maybe The Vorrh is the perfect book for the ever ambiguous Sci-Fi/Fantasy shelf in bookstores all over the world.

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Official Whale and the Petunias mascot Noodle contemplating the mysteries of The Vorrh.

Unrelated book thought of the week: Spring is finally here after a harsh…well, February, really.  One thing I love about living in New York City is that I can finally experience four seasons. I grew up in Central New York, a place that doesn’t seem like the weather would be too bad. But where I grew up, winter lasts through April and May doesn’t really offer much spring. I have memories of going away for Spring Break in April with snow on the ground and returning to the same. I remember snow on Mother’s day a few times. And Fall is much the same; we get Fall in October then November is winter.

Spring, you are a welcome sight.

In New York City, however, spring comes in April and Fall lasts so much longer. Sure the summers are hotter and the whole damn city smells like garbage, but I love having a Spring and a Fall, not 90 degree weather that falls away into 30 degree weather.

It’s amazing what a few degrees of Longitude can do for you. I love having four seasons.

Next time on the Whale and the Petunias: I take a trip back to college and examine and old favorite author from my days as a History Major: Bernard Bailyn and his new work Nine Essays Concerning History. You heard me everyone, back to college! Time to drink Scotch while everyone else is drinking crappy beer and some sort of blue alcohol, blast Fall Out Boy in my apartment and make everyone listen to it, walk through campus at 3 in the morning to print out papers, and seriously what the hell was that blue stuff everyone was drinking!!!?

Does a Cyclops make a Book Science Fiction or Fantasy? Part II.

If you missed Part One, https://thewhaleandthepetunias.wordpress.com/2015/04/20/does-a-cyclops-make-a-book-science-fiction-or-fantasy-part-i/

Books in TV: With season 2 of True Detective coming out, it’s nice to see that series creator Nic Pizzolatto’s first book of short stories, Between Here and the Yellow Sea is being reprinted in May. I’ve never read and of his work and I haven’t watched the show (I know, I know, I’m working on it. I will I will!) but when season 1 premiered, people asked for his book like crazy. I love when people take an interest in reading something beyond their favorite show. It was frustrating that I couldn’t help them pursue that.

Next time you’re watching your favorite show, take a look at who wrote it- or if it’s based on a book. You might find a hidden gem

Here’s one you might not know! Iron Chef America is actually based on Hemingway’s  The Sun Also Rises.

Mario Batali, based on Jack Barnes.

Books in the News: The trial of now convicted bomber Dzhkohar Tsarnaev is coming to a close, and author Masha Gesson has written one of the first, if not the first, book about the two brothers who were accused of bombing the Boston Marathon.  Her work, entitled  aims to explore the relationship between the brothers Tsarnaev’s upbringings and how their background, as Chechnens displaced and returned home, influenced their crime.

I remember the events of the bombing being extremely unsettling. It was the first attack of that nature I’ve experienced in my adult life; I was only 11 when the world Trade Centers fell. I remember that as possibly the single most terrifying and confusing world-scale event of my life. I have not read Ms. Gesson’s work, but I consider it a very important step in illuminating the two men who perpetrated this crime.  If I’ve learned anything about how Historiography can unfold after shocking and tragic events, it’s that they are often either skirted over or looked at without a critical lens; it is important to figure out what we can from both the event and the men who perpetrated it. My hope is that Masha Gesson’s book will keep this event in the critical eye and influence others, both historians and those with political power on the world stage to think critically about how we can make our world a safer place. Understanding and a dialogue influenced by critical thinking are the keys.

What can we learn after such tragedy?

Janet Napolitano reviewed the book for the New York Times and gave it a mostly positive review, but did write

For all her primary research, major questions elude Gessen: How and why did the two brothers shift from living somewhat aimless young lives to bombing the marathon? What was the relationship between the brothers? How, when and where was the plot hatched?

When we understand better what ­causes young men like Tamerlan and Dzhokhar to commit such acts, we will know better how to prevent them. And we must be resilient when such attacks occur, so that life returns to normal as soon as possible.

Despite this, I stand by Ms. Gessen’s work as an important piece for exactly the reason Napolitano writes in the last paragraph.

Retail Gripe of the Week: A week or so ago, this played out for me:

A customer, her friend and her husband are browsing in the store. Customer picks up circle scarf. “What is this?”

I respond, telling her it is a scarf.

She puts it on her head and wears it like a hood. Ignoring this, I offer:

Me: “I gave my fiancée one for Christmas and she loves it”

Customer’s friend: “And she still wants to marry you?”

Customer: “What is it? Am I wearing it wrong?”

BANG HEAD ON COUNTER. RINSE, REPEAT.

Ma’am, you’re.. you’re wearing the scarf INCORRECTLY!

Part III, including my review of The Vorrh, comes Friday!

Does a Cyclops make a Book Science Fiction or Fantasy? Part I.

Before I begin, let me pay tribute to a favorite web show of mine.

IT’S FANTASY/SCI-FI MOOOOOOOOOOOOOONTH!!

This is a shout out to the Fantasy themed month on ‘Continue,’ a weekly web show on YouTube where three funny guys play an older video game for about a little while and then discuss whether they’d continue playing or game over. Check it out at https://www.youtube.com/user/ContinueShow

There. Now!

In most bookstores, you’ll find the Science Fiction and fantasy section thrown together under Science Fiction, something that has always been strange to me. I remember going to big bookstores looking for Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett books and finding them under Science Fiction, a category that quite literally means Fiction that uses Science as a means of telling the story. Or, as our friendly Wikipedia puts it:

Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginative content such as futuristic settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, faster than light travel, parallel universes and extraterrestrial life.

It’s okay. We’ll figure out this literary mystery together. Not Literary Mystery, that’s a different genre for a different month. Oh man this is confusing.

Well. That doesn’t sound much like Terry Pratchett to me. Or Neil Gaiman. Certainly Douglas Adams, another author I found in that section. But what about Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians? Sometimes I’ve seen his books, a trilogy that riffs Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, filed away under Science Fiction. It’s become a blanket term, much like ‘Indie’ has become a blanket term in music for any band with a certain sound, regardless of whether or not the music is produced independently or not on a major label. At my store all of these authors are on the same shelf which we’ve labeled Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. Even though we make the distinction that the shelf is for all three genres, Isaac Asimov and J.R.R. Tolkien sit side by side. (Metaphorically I mean. We still file authors alphabetically at the store. We are civilized, you know)

Even on this blog,I’ve set this month aside for Sci-Fi/Fantasy! Why! Why must these genres be bonded at the spine?

It’s because they offer a type of fiction that guarantees strange occurrences and fantastic worlds. Sure, there are quite a few books on the fiction shelf that offer the same thing; Master and Margarita  features a talking cat, A Christmas Carol is filled with talking ghosts, and David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas is found on many store’s fiction shelf. But the Science fiction/Fantasy genre offers more than that.

I personally like the guarantee of such things, but I lean towards the fantasy more than Science fiction.  I love a fantastic world with fantastic characters, especially stories based in mythology or strange creatures. Douglas Adams and some of Vonnegut’s sci-fi is about as far into that genre as I’ll go. I don’t have much interest in space and aliens on other planets, unless it is humorous.

When I picked up an Advanced Reader copy of The Vorrh, by poet, sculptor and performance artist B. Catling, I couldn’t resist, but I also couldn’t figure out where it fit in. The back of the book promised the book’s namesake was “a vast-perhaps endless-forest” in the heart of Africa. With characters such as “A Cyclops raised by robots.” Was it science fiction? Or did this vast Africa forest promise a modern mercantilism fueled Tolkien-like world for these characters to exist?

B. Catling

The Vorrh vs. 50 Shades of Grey: As of this month, we’ve sold 236 copies of 50 Shades of Grey. We have sold 0 copies of the Vorrh, mostly because it has not been released yet. Come May 5, we’ll see how it fares against the titan of literature that is 50 Shades of Grey. Well… titan of something. Literature is a bit too generous.

My guess? We’ll sell 237 copies in one day. Or 1. It’s a loose approximation.

Worst Literature related Social-Media Article of the month: April Fool’s day on Facebook is always a head-to-palm depression-inducing roller coaster ride. I’m sure you’ve experienced the same; every other person posts a ridiculous, clearly fake article that makes outrageous claims without bothering to check the date.

Not that it’s a common thing for Facebook users to check the source of the article they post; I’ve seen many people post an article from a clearly satirical website in a fit of incredulous rage, completely unaware of the source, but still. It’s April 1st! I don’t think Steven Spielberg is set to direct the My Little Pony movie. (Okay, I made that one up. Maybe I should’ve written that article?)

The most interesting article for me was the one floating around that claimed J.K. Rowling had admitted “Harry was a figment of Ron’s imagination.”

People fell for it like crazy! The article was clever and gave me a good chuckle, but it was clearly satirical.

What you may not know is that this is not new territory, dear internet. If you’re not familiar, this postulating of a crazy theory exists with all sorts of literature, television and movies on the internet. These fan theories are far too abundant.

I’m working on a theory that proves Pokemon is a retelling of Oliver Twist.

They pop up everywhere with all forms of art and media. Spongebob and his friends in Bikini Bottom are the product of nuclear testing? Ash Ketchum dies in the first episode and the entire series of Pokemon is his coma dream? Sully and Mike from Monsters Inc are Stalin and Hitler that suffered mutations as a result of nuclear bombs? Yup, it’s all there. That’s the sort of thing that exists. People make this stuff up all the time and purport it as being true. The internet gets a bit obsessive about this as people make newer, more ridiculous theories. But they are often debunked and usually just in good fun. There was a famous one that involved a haunted copy of the Legend of Zelda: the Majoras Mask referred to as ‘Ben Drowned.’ It’s not hard to make one, believe me.  In fact, I made up one of those examples.

Let me give this a shot:

Monsters Inc is actually our world, post-WWII and post atomic bomb attacks. Everyone was horribly mutated due to radiation, but those that survived knew enough to end the war and rebuild as best they could. Without electricity or nuclear power and without the resources to harvest sun, wind or water energy, top scientists (who survived due to their knowledge of the devastating effects of radiation) discover how to harness children’s screams using the power to travel to infinite dimensions via doors.

            Our heroes are actually two of history’s worst people: Sully is Joseph Stalin and Mike is Adolf Hitler. With the effects of radiation, no one can tell who anyone used to be. Mike and Sully don’t even know each other’s true identity. They have both sworn to be better people, but they are still hungry for power, lusting after the position of top scarer.

            The abominable snowman is actually FDR, set in self-isolation for not being able to stop nuclear war from descending upon the world. Randall is Joseph Goebbels, still as terrible as ever. It’s a story about secret redemption; that when the world falls apart, when nihilists get what they want, they can change. It’s a message to us all: even those that wish the world would burn can see the value in rebuilding.

Hey kids, we’re dispossessed dictators! Give us a hug!

Okay it’s not perfect, but it’s just the sort of thing people on the internet love to do. We like to stare into the abyss and find constellations. Actually, that’s backwards. They like to stare at the constellations, pretty clear in what they are but with room for imagination and personal connections, and find the abyss, the nothingness with no substance that is certainly impressive.

Also, Harry is imaginary. He’s a character from fiction. So the article was half right.

(Part II on Wednesday!)