Sunday, February 19, 2017

Chicago Nerds- Every Heart a Doorway

For the February meeting of the Chicago Nerd Social Club, we met to discuss Every Heart a Doorway, the newest work by Seanan McGuire.

The novella is set in a boarding school for children who have returned from magical otherworlds—expats from Wonderland or Narnia, essentially.

We had what I think was the biggest crowd I've yet seen for CNSC, good discussion. Brief notes below:

Although a good portion of us "liked what there was" of the novel, the consensus that emerged is that Every Heart a Doorway is a pretty thin work: while we very much liked the pitch, we didn't feel like there was really very much here beyond that. The plot feels almost irrelevant ("just throw a murder mystery at it, that's a plot, right?"), and we weren't very impressed with the depth of the characters.

A lot of our discussion wound up being kind of lamentation that the novella didn't engage with a lot of the questions and ideas it half-forms. We liked the idea of this as a "survivor's tale" that isn't actually focused on the supernatural itself. We would have liked to see more of the school & therapy and how that actually worked, but there's really nothing here. Contrasted with Daryl Gregory's We Are All Completely Fine about group-therapy for horror-movie-type survivors.

The setting of this story is a school where the majority of the kids want to return to their magical lands, but it mentions a school for the kids that DON'T want to go back; we thought that might have been more interesting to see in many ways. The format of the in-therapy, in-recovery kids seems like it could engage metaphorically with a variety of different real topics: addiction, being deprogrammed from a cult, recovering from abuse or other trauma...but we didn't feel it really did much with those resonances. Some of us were half-hoping for a "gotcha! You've been in a mental instution all along!" kind of twist, but it seems to mean everything literally.

We really wondered what it meant that the different kinds of worlds (logical/nonsensical, virtuous/wicked) "found" different children. The idea of "mapping" the different worlds is interesting, though I must note (nerd alert?) that they're not really mapping if the worlds don't have a topological connection—they're just categorizing. It would have been interested to see the map "used"—figuring out which directions to go within a world to find regions with different properties—but that doesn't seem to be the way it works. We also noted that reducing the fantasy worlds to just a few main "types" is a very gamer-y reduction of what's actually magical or fantastic about them. I've been thinking a lot lately about "creeping naturalism"—the way that quasi-scientific thinking seems to be seeping into a lot of putatively fantastic fiction—and this definitely pinged my radar for that.

We had a little discussion of the "revisiting/twist on portal fantasy sub-genre", including Skottie Young's comic I Hate Fairyland. *Barely* mentioned Grossman's Magicians trilogy, and I'm kicking myself for not bringing MiƩville's Un Lun Dun into the conversation.

We were really intrigued slash frustrated with the rationale given for the gender imbalance (mostly girls at the school), which is that society trains girls to a kind of silence which makes them more likely to spot doorways & less likely to be immediately missed. After thinking about that for a minute, we were mostly left feeling that it doesn't make a ton of sense.

We also really don't quite get/approve the mechanics and moral of why Nancy's door appears at the end—some kind of "if you love something let it go" variation? Really weird, and seemed tacked on just to have a happy ending. Likewise, the idea that "the hope of returning is bad" is also interesting, but not very explored—and then, since multiple characters do get to go back, doesn't seem to hold very well.

As I'm writing these notes up, I'm realizing that this sounds overly negative. Unfortunately, we kept circling around the idea that the premise is pretty much the only strong thing here. It was suggested that length is the problem here—a "padded out" short story or "too short" novel—but I had to leap to the form's defense. The novella and short story don't in and of themselves have the flaws (thin characterizing, weak plot, poor premise examination) that we kept poking at—Ted Chiang & Kai Ashante Wilson were two counter-examples I brought up. Also, while its length (174 pages) is on the short side (especially for the often-enormous modern fantasy novel), that nonetheless puts it in the same word-count as books like Delaney's Babel-17 or Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven: complex works that we don't typically think of as "novellas" or "short stories".

However, we did note that McGuire (who also writes under the name Mira Grant) is perhaps stronger at series-lengths, where there's more room to flesh out the characters and worlds—her Newsflesh and October Daye series were recommended—and it already looks like this world is series-destined, with a prequel and possibly more in the works. There were lines and ideas here we loved—the insect-sized world being held open, futilely, was a group favorite—and hopefully some of them could be developed more in future entries.

We had some other issues with the novella—the checkboxy way it includes sex/gender diversity, severe problems with the realism of the plot (body disposal, lack of security/locker searches etc.), and the odd lack of curiosity about the portal-worlds, what they mean and how they operate.

Next time, March 13th, we'll be discussing A Planet for Rent by Cuban SF author Yoss. Keep up with CNSC on their website and Facebook page.

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