Review: The Past is Red, by Catherynne M. Valente
Tetley is nineteen and is the most hated person in Garbagetown. That's kind of horrible, but life is otherwise great. As she puts it:
I'm awfully lucky when you think about it. Garbagetown is the most wonderful place anybody has ever lived in the history of the world, even if you count the Pyramids and New York City and Camelot. I have Grape Crush and Big Bargains and my hibiscus flower, and I can fish like I've got bait for a heart so I hardly ever go hungry, and once I found a ruby ring and a New Mexico license plate inside a bluefin tuna. Everyone says they only hate me because I annihilated hope and butchered our future, but I know better, and anyway, it's a lie. Some people are just born to be despised. The Loathing of Tetley began small and grew bigger and bigger, like the Thames, until it swallowed me whole.
Garbagetown is a giant floating pile of garbage in the middle of the ocean, and it is, so far as anyone knows, the only "land" left in the world. Global warming has flooded everything until the remaining Fuckwits (as their future descendants call everyone who was alive at the time) took to the Misery Boats and searched hopelessly for land. Eventually they realized they could live on top of the now-massive Pacific Garbage Patch and began the Great Sorting, which is fifty years into Tetley's past. All of the types of garbage were moved into their own areas, allowing small micronations of scavengers to form and giving each area its own character.
Candle Hole is the most beautiful place in Garbagetown, which is the most beautiful place in the world. All of the stubs of candles the Fuckwits threw out piled up into hills and mountains and caverns and dells, votive candles and taper candles and tea lights and birthday candles and big fat colorful pillar candles, stacked and somewhat melted into a great crumbling gorgeous warren of wicks and wax. All the houses are cozy little honeycombs melted into hillside, with smooth round windows and low golden ceilings. At night, from far away, Candle Hole looks like a firefly palace. When the wind blows, it smells like cinnamon, and freesia, and cranberries, and lavender, and Fresh Linen Scent, and New Car Smell.
Two things should be obvious from this introduction. First, do not read this book looking for an accurate, technical projection of our environmental future. Or, for that matter, physical realism of any kind. That's not the book that Valente is writing and you'll just frustrate yourself. This is science fiction as concretized metaphor rather than prediction or scientific exploration. We Fuckwits have drowned the world with our greed and left our descendants living in piles of our garbage; you have to suspend disbelief and go with the premise.
The second thing is that either you will like Tetley's storytelling style or you will not like this book. I find Valente very hit-and-miss, but this time it worked for me. The language is a bit less over-the-top than Space Opera, and it fits Tetley's insistent, aggressive optimism so well that it carries much of the weight of characterization. Mileage will definitely vary; this is probably a love-it-or-hate-it book.
The Past is Red is divided into two parts. The first part is the short story "The Future is Blue," previously published in Clarkesworld and in Valente's short story collection of the same name. It tells the story of Tetley's early life, how she got her name, and how she became the most hated person in Garbagetown. The second part is much longer and features an older, quieter, more thoughtful, and somewhat more cynical Tetley, more life philosophy, and a bit of more-traditional puzzle science fiction. It lacks some of the bubbly energy of "The Future is Blue" but also features less violence and abuse. The overall work is a long novella or very short novel.
This book has a lot of feelings about the environment, capitalism, greed, and the desire to let other people solve your problems for you, and it is not subtle about any of them. It's satisfying in the way that a good rant is satisfying, not in the way that a coherent political strategy is satisfying. What saves it from being too didactic or self-righteous is Tetley, who is happy to record her own emotions and her moments of wonder and is mostly uninterested in telling other people what to do. The setting sounds darkly depressing, and there are moments where it feels that way in the book, but the core of the story and of Tetley's life philosophy is a type of personal resilience: find the things that make you happy, put one foot in front of the other, and enjoy the world for what it is rather than what it could be or what other people want to convince you it might be. It's also surprisingly funny, particularly if you see the humor in bizarrely-specific piles of the detritus of civilization.
The one place where I will argue with Valente a bit is that The Past is Red thoroughly embraces an environmental philosophy of personal responsibility. The devastating critique aimed at the Fuckwits is universal and undistinguished except slightly by class. Tetley and the other inhabitants of Garbagetown make no distinction between types of Fuckits or attempt to apportion blame in any way more granular than entire generations and eras.
This is probably realistic. I understand why, by Tetley's time, no one is interested in the fine points of history. But the story was written today, for readers in our time, and this type of responsibility collapse is intentionally and carefully constructed by the largest polluters and the people with the most power. Collective and undifferentiated responsibility means that we're using up our energy fretting about whether we took two showers, which partly deflects attention from the companies, industries, and individuals that are directly responsible for the vast majority of environmental damage. We don't live in a world full of fuckwits; we live in a world run by fuckwits and full of the demoralized, harried, conned, manipulated, overwhelmed, and apathetic, which is a small but important difference. This book is not the right venue to explore that difference, but I wish the vitriol had not been applied quite so indiscriminately.
The rest, though, worked for me. Valente tends to describe things by piling clauses on top of adjectives, which objectively isn't the best writing but it fits everything about Tetley's personality so well that I think this is the book where it works. I found her strange mix of optimism, practicality, and unbreakable inner ethics oddly endearing. "The Future is Blue" is available for free on-line, so if in doubt, read some or all of it, and that should tell you whether you're interested in the expansion. I'm glad I picked it up.
Content warning for physical and sexual abuse of the first-person protagonist, mostly in the first section.
Rating: 7 out of 10
Review: The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis
|Series:||Chronicles of Narnia #7|
The Last Battle is the seventh and final book of the Chronicles of Narnia in every reading order. It ties together (and spoils) every previous Narnia book, so you do indeed want to read it last (or skip it entirely, but I'll get into that).
In the far west of Narnia, beyond the Lantern Waste and near the great waterfall that marks Narnia's western boundary, live a talking ape named Shift and a talking donkey named Puzzle. Shift is a narcissistic asshole who has been gaslighting and manipulating Puzzle for years, convincing the poor donkey that he's stupid and useless for anything other than being Shift's servant. At the start of the book, a lion skin washes over the waterfall and into the Cauldron Pool. Shift, seeing a great opportunity, convinces Puzzle to retrieve it.
The king of Narnia at this time is Tirian. I would tell you more about Tirian except, despite being the protagonist, that's about all the characterization he gets. He's the king, he's broad-shouldered and strong, he behaves in a correct kingly fashion by preferring hunting lodges and simple camps to the capital at Cair Paravel, and his close companion is a unicorn named Jewel. Other than that, he's another character like Rilian from The Silver Chair who feels like he was taken from a medieval Arthurian story. (Thankfully, unlike Rilian, he doesn't talk like he's in a medieval Arthurian story.)
Tirian finds out about Shift's scheme when a dryad appears at Tirian's camp, calling for justice for the trees of Lantern Waste who are being felled. Tirian rushes to investigate and stop this monstrous act, only to find the beasts of Narnia cutting down trees and hauling them away for Calormene overseers. When challenged on why they would do such a thing, they reply that it's at Aslan's orders.
The Last Battle is largely the reason why I decided to do this re-read and review series. It is, let me be clear, a bad book. The plot is absurd, insulting to the characters, and in places actively offensive. It is also, unlike the rest of the Narnia series, dark and depressing for nearly all of the book. The theology suffers from problems faced by modern literature that tries to use the Book of Revelation and related Christian mythology as a basis. And it is, most famously, the site of one of the most notorious authorial betrayals of a character in fiction.
And yet, The Last Battle, probably more than any other single book, taught me to be a better human being. It contains two very specific pieces of theology that I would now critique in multiple ways but which were exactly the pieces of theology that I needed to hear when I first understood them. This book steered me away from a closed, judgmental, and condemnatory mindset at exactly the age when I needed something to do that. For that, I will always have a warm spot in my heart for it.
I'm going to start with the bad parts, though, because that's how the book starts.
MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW.
First, and most seriously, this is a second-order idiot plot. Shift shows up with a donkey wearing a lion skin (badly), only lets anyone see him via firelight, claims he's Aslan, and starts ordering the talking animals of Narnia to completely betray their laws and moral principles and reverse every long-standing political position of the country... and everyone just nods and goes along with this. This is the most blatant example of a long-standing problem in this series: Lewis does not respect his animal characters. They are the best feature of his world, and he treats them as barely more intelligent than their non-speaking equivalents and in need of humans to tell them what to do.
Furthermore, despite the assertion of the narrator, Shift is not even close to clever. His deception has all the subtlety of a five-year-old who doesn't want to go to bed, and he offers the Narnians absolutely nothing in exchange for betraying their principles. I can forgive Puzzle for going along with the scheme since Puzzle has been so emotionally abused that he doesn't know what else to do, but no one else has any excuse, especially Shift's neighbors. Given his behavior in the book, everyone within a ten mile radius would be so sick of his whining, bullying, and lying within a month that they'd never believe anything he said again. Rishda and Ginger, a Calormene captain and a sociopathic cat who later take over Shift's scheme, do qualify as clever, but there's no realistic way Shift's plot would have gotten far enough for them to get involved.
The things that Shift gets the Narnians to do are awful. This is by far the most depressing book in the series, even more than the worst parts of The Silver Chair. I'm sure I'm not the only one who struggled to read through the first part of this book, and raced through it on re-reads because everything is so hard to watch. The destruction is wanton and purposeless, and the frequent warnings from both characters and narration that these are the last days of Narnia add to the despair. Lewis takes all the beautiful things that he built over six books and smashes them before your eyes. It's a lot to take, given that previous books would have treated the felling of a single tree as an unspeakable catastrophe.
I think some of these problems are due to the difficulty of using Christian eschatology in a modern novel. An antichrist is obligatory, but the animals of Narnia have no reason to follow an antichrist given their direct experience with Aslan, particularly not the aloof one that Shift tries to give them. Lewis forces the plot by making everyone act stupidly and out of character. Similarly, Christian eschatology says everything must become as awful as possible right before the return of Christ, hence the difficult-to-read sections of Narnia's destruction, but there's no in-book reason for the Narnians' complicity in that destruction. One can argue about whether this is good theology, but it's certainly bad storytelling.
I can see the outlines of the moral points Lewis is trying to make about greed and rapacity, abuse of the natural world, dubious alliances, cynicism, and ill-chosen prophets, but because there is no explicable reason for Tirian's quiet kingdom to suddenly turn to murderous resource exploitation, none of those moral points land with any force. The best moral apocalypse shows the reader how, were they living through it, they would be complicit in the devastation as well. Lewis does none of that work, so the reader is just left angry and confused.
The book also has several smaller poor authorial choices, such as the blackface incident. Tirian, Jill, and Eustace need to infiltrate Shift's camp, and use blackface to disguise themselves as Calormenes. That alone uncomfortably reveals how much skin tone determines nationality in this world, but Lewis makes it far worse by having Tirian comment that he "feel[s] a true man again" after removing the blackface and switching to Narnian clothes.
All of this drags on and on, unlike Lewis's normally tighter pacing, to the point that I remembered this book being twice the length of any other Narnia book. It's not; it's about the same length as the rest, but it's such a grind that it feels interminable. The sum total of the bright points of the first two-thirds of the book are the arrival of Jill and Eustace, Jill's one moment of true heroism, and the loyalty of a single Dwarf. The rest is all horror and betrayal and doomed battles and abject stupidity.
I do, though, have to describe Jill's moment of glory, since I complained about her and Eustace throughout The Silver Chair. Eustace is still useless, but Jill learned forestcraft during her previous adventures (not that we saw much sign of this previously) and slips through the forest like a ghost to steal Puzzle and his lion costume out from the under the nose of the villains. Even better, she finds Puzzle and the lion costume hilarious, which is the one moment in the book where one of the characters seems to understand how absurd and ridiculous this all is. I loved Jill so much in that moment that it makes up for all of the pointless bickering of The Silver Chair. She doesn't get to do much else in this book, but I wish the Jill who shows up in The Last Battle had gotten her own book.
The end of this book, and the only reason why it's worth reading, happens once the heroes are forced into the stable that Shift and his co-conspirators have been using as the stage for their fake Aslan. Its door (for no well-explained reason) has become a door to Aslan's Country and leads to a reunion with all the protagonists of the series. It also becomes the frame of Aslan's final destruction of Narnia and judging of its inhabitants, which I suspect would be confusing if you didn't already know something about Christian eschatology. But before that, this happens, which is sufficiently and deservedly notorious that I think it needs to be quoted in full.
"Sir," said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. "If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?"
"My sister Susan," answered Peter shortly and gravely, "is no longer a friend of Narnia."
"Yes," said Eustace, "and whenever you've tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says 'What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'"
"Oh Susan!" said Jill. "She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up."
"Grown-up indeed," said the Lady Polly. "I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she'll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one's life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can."
There are so many obvious and dire problems with this passage, and so many others have written about it at length, that I will only add a few points. First, I find it interesting that neither Lucy nor Edmund says a thing. (I would like to think that Edmund knows better.) The real criticism comes from three characters who never interacted with Susan in the series: the two characters introduced after she was no longer allowed to return to Narnia, and a character from the story that predated hers. (And Eustace certainly has some gall to criticize someone else for treating Narnia as a childish game.)
It also doesn't say anything good about Lewis that he puts his rather sexist attack on Susan into the mouths of two other female characters. Polly's criticism is a somewhat generic attack on puberty that could arguably apply to either sex (although "silliness" is usually reserved for women), but Jill makes the attack explicitly gendered. It's the attack of a girl who wants to be one of the boys on a girl who embraces things that are coded feminine, and there's a whole lot of politics around the construction of gender happening here that Lewis is blindly reinforcing and not grappling with at all.
Plus, this is only barely supported by single sentences in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Horse and His Boy and directly contradicts the earlier books. We're expected to believe that Susan the archer, the best swimmer, the most sensible and thoughtful of the four kids has abruptly changed her whole personality. Lewis could have made me believe Susan had soured on Narnia after the attempted kidnapping (and, although left unstated, presumably eventual attempted rape) in The Horse and His Boy, if one ignores the fact that incident supposedly happens before Prince Caspian where there is no sign of such a reaction. But not for those reasons, and not in that way.
Thankfully, after this, the book gets better, starting with the Dwarfs, which is one of the two passages that had a profound influence on me.
Except for one Dwarf who allied with Tirian, the Dwarfs reacted to the exposure of Shift's lies by disbelieving both Tirian and Shift, calling a pox on both their houses, and deciding to make their own side. During the last fight in front of the stable, they started killing whichever side looked like they were winning. (Although this is horrific in the story, I think this is accurate social commentary on a certain type of cynicism, even if I suspect Lewis may have been aiming it at atheists.) Eventually, they're thrown through the stable door by the Calormenes. However, rather than seeing the land of beauty and plenty that everyone else sees, they are firmly convinced they're in a dark, musty stable surrounded by refuse and dirty straw.
This is, quite explicitly, not something imposed on them. Lucy rebukes Eustace for wishing Tash had killed them, and tries to make friends with them. Aslan tries to show them how wrong their perceptions are, to no avail. Their unwillingness to admit they were wrong is so strong that they make themselves believe that everything is worse than it actually is.
"You see," said Aslan. "They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out."
I grew up with the US evangelical version of Hell as a place of eternal torment, which in turn was used to justify religious atrocities in the name of saving people from Hell. But there is no Hell of that type in this book. There is a shadow into which many evil characters simply disappear, and there's this passage. Reading this was the first time I understood the alternative idea of Hell as the absence of God instead of active divine punishment. Lewis doesn't use the word "Hell," but it's obvious from context that the Dwarfs are in Hell. But it's not something Aslan does to them and no one wants them there; they could leave any time they wanted, but they're too unwilling to be wrong.
You may have to be raised in conservative Christianity to understand how profoundly this rethinking of Hell (which Lewis tackles at greater length in The Great Divorce) undermines the system of guilt and fear that's used as motivation and control. It took me several re-readings and a lot of thinking about this passage, but this is where I stopped believing in a vengeful God who will eternally torture nonbelievers, and thus stopped believing in all of the other theology that goes with it.
The second passage that changed me is Emeth's story. Emeth is a devout Calormene, a follower of Tash, who volunteered to enter the stable when Shift and his co-conspirators were claiming Aslan/Tash was inside. Some time after going through, he encounters Aslan, and this is part of his telling of that story (and yes, Lewis still has Calormenes telling stories as if they were British translators of the Arabian Nights):
[...] Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but is wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me, thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.
So, first, don't ever say this to anyone. It's horribly condescending and, since it's normally said by white Christians to other people, usually explicitly colonialist. Telling someone that their god is evil but since they seem to be a good person they're truly worshiping your god is only barely better than saying yours is the only true religion.
But it is better, and as someone who, at the time, was wholly steeped in the belief that only Christians were saved and every follower of another religion was following Satan and was damned to Hell, this passage blew my mind. This was the first place I encountered the idea that someone who followed a different religion could be saved, or that God could transcend religion, and it came with exactly the context and justification that I needed given how close-minded I was at the time. Today, I would say that the Christian side of this analysis needs far more humility, and fobbing off all the evil done in the name of the Christian God by saying "oh, those people were really following Satan" is a total moral copout. But, nonetheless, Lewis opened a door for me that I was able to step through and move beyond to a less judgmental, dismissive, and hostile view of others.
There's not much else in the book after this. It's mostly Lewis's charmingly Platonic view of the afterlife, in which the characters go inward and upward to truer and more complete versions of both Narnia and England and are reunited (very briefly) with every character of the series. Lewis knows not to try too hard to describe the indescribable, but it remains one of my favorite visions of an afterlife because it makes so explicit that this world is neither static or the last, but only the beginning of a new adventure.
This final section of The Last Battle is deeply flawed, rather arrogant, a little bizarre, and involves more lectures on theology than precise description, but I still love it. By itself, it's not a bad ending for the series, although I don't think it has half the beauty or wonder of the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It's a shame about the rest of the book, and it's a worse shame that Lewis chose to sacrifice Susan on the altar of his prejudices. Those problems made it very hard to read this book again and make it impossible to recommend. Thankfully, you can read the series without it, and perhaps most readers would be better off imagining their own ending (or lack of ending) to Narnia than the one Lewis chose to give it.
But the one redeeming quality The Last Battle will always have for me is that, despite all of its flaws, it was exactly the book that I needed to read when I read it.
Rating: 4 out of 10