Thursday, October 1, 2015

Sulzer SF/F: Dead Witch Walking

The Sulzer SF/F club's September pick was Kim Harrison's "Dead Witch Walking" (2004)

It's the first novel in the 13-book "Hollows" series, following the adventures of a supernatural bounty hunter/investigator. The other 12 books in the theories are are titled with references to Clint Eastwood films, leading us to speculate about Western (spaghetti, not hemisphere) influences.

"Dead Witch Walking" sets up the character of Rachel Morgan, witch and "runner" for a supernatural law enforcement agency, who quits to strike out on her own. Much of the novel deals with her evasion of assassins sent by her previous boss, as she tries to bring down a crime boss to settle the score with her old agency. It also sets up moderately large supporting cast, including her vampire & pixie partners.

We had a great discussion, though I must admit I had a really hard time with this book. Spoilers below!

Somewhere in reading and discussing this novel, I realized that my conception of "urban fantasy" as a genre was a bit off. When I saw that as the category, I was expecting fantasy that was modern, non-epic, with urban settings and concerns (politics, economics, race, for instance). Something along the lines of MiƩville's "Perdido Street Station" (2000), Swanwick's "The Iron Dragon's Daughter" (1993), or Bennett's "City of Stairs" (2014).

Partially right. But I should have been thinking more along the lines of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", and more thriller/crime/romance influences, looking at many of the works discussed as core urban fantasy.

In discussion, the rest of this series was highly recommended, and other series it was compared to included:
  • Jim Butcher's "Dresden Files" (2000-ongoing)
  • Charlaine Harris's work, such as the "Sookie Stackhouse" series (2001-2013)
  • Laurell K. Hamilton's "Anita Blake" series (1993-ongoing)
Intriguing that serialization seems to characterize the genre, as well.

So, "Dead Witch Walking". It's definitely not "high" fantasy in the vein of Tolkien, which some of us found to be a point in its favor. We talked for a bit about the world here, which has an explicit alt-history in addition to all the supernatural critters: in this world, genetic and biological engineering became the defining Cold War technology, rather than the space-race. About 40 years before our narrative starts, a weaponized virus was accidentally spread through GMO tomatoes, resulting in a huge number of human deaths. In the resulting chaos, the no-longer-such-a-minority supernatural species, such as vampires & lycanthropes, came out of hiding to help keep society going.

I want it, you want it: let's get NITPICKY WITH MATHS.

The tomato-propagated "Angel" virus, in the novel's alt-history, struck in the late 1960s, killed around 25% of the human population (the "Turn"), and that brought the human and supernatural being populations close to parity. Using these numbers, and the world population at the time (roughly 3.5 billion), we can get a fairly good approximation of the actual numbers of Inderlanders. We'll ignore the supposedly 100% elf fatality, which would in any case only push our Inderlander population estimate upwards.

Low number: the pre-Turn Inderlanders were all passing for human, and thus a part of that 3.5 billion. 25% death of humans brought the populations to parity, therefore: pre-turn Inderlanders would have composed 3/7 of the population, 43% of the world population: 1.5 billion.

High number: the pre-Turn Inderlanders all lived secretly, thus not a part of the 3.5 billion population. Therefore, if a 25% human mortality rate achieved parity, there must have been 2.625 billion of them.

In either case, those are just huge numbers. Harrison doesn't seem to have really thought through what it would mean for greater than 1 out of 3 people to be Inderlanders pre-Turn, and roughly 1 out of 2 post-Turn. Those numbers are especially troublesome given that at least some Inderlanders exist in predator-prey relationships with the baseline humans.

Alright, enough with numbers. Just an example of the kind of glaring worldbuilding fail that I wrestled with in this novel. You could do something with the above scenario that Harrison implies, but she doesn't. The world seems mostly the same, just with supernatural suburbs now.

Neovison vison, vegetarian Krava Maga enthusiast.
There were lots of other little issues that just rubbed me wrong, once my disbelief suspension suffered an integrity loss. Buying "fern seeds" (ferns don't produce seeds), for one thing. Also the entire mink sequence, wherein Rachel the mink subsists on carrots (they're entirely carnivorous) and uses like judo spin-kicks during the ratfight--not exactly set up for bipedal humannoid martial arts, mink.

The best way I can summarize my feelings toward this novel is "hot mess". I could let pretty much all the worldbuilding stuff go if the plot, motivations, reality level, and tone didn't veer drunkenly all over the place. Nah, you know what, the worldbuilding fails still would have done me in.

My biggest issue was the treatment of Trent Kalamack, our main (?) villain/target. He does some majorly nonsensical moustache-twirling murder, seemingly just to give him some villainy points. But we're told that the main reason he's scum is because he's manufacturing and selling illegal biodrugs--not pleasure drugs, not meth or cocaine or whatever. Nope, he's funding stuff that treats cancer, Alzheimer's, that kind of thing (humans have turned against advance medicine after the Turn, leaving effective medications like these entirely up to the black market). And, uh, that makes him...really bad?

I also couldn't quite figure out some tonal things, particularly re: sex. Pretty much every male character Rachel encounters is appraised as a sexual object, but there's no actual sex here, and indeed no romance. Also, Harrison does that thing of kind of pointing off-screen and saying "whoo, there's a really provocative thing, right over there", and then she doesn't actually tell you what it is. Not my favorite technique.

But! I don't want to let my gripes with the book overshadow our discussion, which was a lot of fun.

We talked for quite a bit about the vampires and their mechanics--there are "living" and "dead" vampires; vampirism here is transmitted by a virus that imputes certain powers to its victims, and then resurrects them as the full version after their death. The live vampires are split into two classes, though: those who were infected while still in the womb, and those who were merely bitten later in their life; the former class have considerably more power and prestige than the latter. Lots of weird class stuff going on here, and hints of complex inheritance issues with Ivy.

Also, like many fantasies in this approximate genre, I'm a little confused by the ontology, if you'll excuse the highfalutin term-- vampirism here has been "naturalized" by being attributed to a virus, and their pain/pleasure-switching saliva is a natural mechanic, but in other aspects they are still definitely supernatural, and at any rate there is still lots going on in the world that is explicitly supernatural. Throws me back to all those arguments about whether "Buffy" is at root actually SF and not a Fantasy variant. Or not!

There's some weird class/race stuff going on with the pixies & fairies, too, who seem to be considered second-class citizens at best. More like subhumans, really. I was a little squicked out by the "subletting the garden" scene.

Also, although I'm told that he develops into more of a character later, Keasley is a textbook example of the magical Negro trope. Red flag.

We also noted how the Inderlander/human tensions precipitated something that seems fairly analogous to white flight, only along species/magic lines rather than human-racial, which is interesting.

Spent a lot of time discussing the I.S. and F.I.B. and the general lawful/lawlessness of the world. Though there's supposedly enough law and order that characters must make certain concessions to it, in many ways it feels like anything goes--which perhaps is why Eastwood Westerns are referenced by this series.

Also- Cincinatti? I kept forgetting where we were. Not a lot of actual urban description, but perhaps that's in later books as well.

Readers of later books were able to confirm my strong suspicion that a certain character is an elf. CLEARLY AN ELF. Also, on the topic of species: witches. A species, or a profession? Apparently: BOTH. Er, something.

Question: has "species" replaced "race" in our discussions of, say, elves vs. dwarves? What do we think about that? Are we just scared to say the word "race" too much? Pedantic note, but, as all these fantasies make clear, all these "species" are constantly interbreedin' and making fertile hybrids and so forth, so "species" is not really an accurate term.

Many wonderful digressions, as well, including where to get good greens in Chicago, made-for-TV Canadian dystopia adaptions, and our personal favorite typographic sins (widows, orphans, rivers, kernings).

All in all I'm glad I read the book--one of the best parts of being in bookclubs has been that it's prompted me to read outside my comfort zone, and also to stick it out with books that I would otherwise have dropped.

Sulzer SF/F's next meeting will be the second week of November, and the book selection should be posted by the end of the week!

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