Sunday, January 7, 2018

Chicago Nerds- Lovecraft Country

For the December meeting of the Chicago Nerd Social Club, we discussed Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff.

Set in the 1950s, Lovecraft Country follows a cast of connected characters from Chicago, all black, who become entangled in a number of supernatural adventures connected to a secret occult organization.

Generally quite liked, and we spent most of our conversation talking about how the novel sets actual Jim Crow evil up against a more pulp-SF, Lovecrafty kind. Notes and possible spoilers below!

We discussed the format first, noting that the initial chapter doesn't really clue readers in to how the overall structure works—if these stories had appeared independently first, it would definitely be a "fix-up" novel. Except for the last one, each individual chapter could be read completely on its own. We thought that worked pretty well for this, and compared it to anthology and serial formats in both television and print.

We find the idea  of  Jordan Peele television adaptation very exciting, although there hasn't been much new info on that in a while.

Lots of discussion of the real life evil in the story (violent racism of the Jim Crow era) versus the supernatural evils; a recurring theme in the book, and our impression as the reader, is that the supernatural threats just don't feel as dangerous.

Noted that the title is a tiny bit misleading; each chapter follows a different "weird pulp" kind of format, but the influence of Lovecraft himself isn't particularly pronounced. "Lovecraft" stands in for a host of related writers (as well as virulent xenophobia).

We liked the use of maps here, the way the travel guide (based on the real-life Negro Motorist Green-Book), especially as illustrated by Horace, demonstrate the way that traveling-while-black in this time period had all the danger of a fantasy novel (more so, since violence isn't even a good option when the trolls are law enforcement).

We talked a bit about how a lot of the atrocities of this era are talked about, in our society, as though they're artificially far in the past. Noted that Ruby Bridges, the first black student to attend a desegregated school, is only in her sixties.

Some discussion of just how bad Lovecraft's racism really was (quite), whether or not Lovecraft is worth reading, and MiƩville's discussion of HPL's problematic nature. See for instance Nnedi Okorafor (who we just read!) on the World Fantasy Award problem. It's no longer a Lovecraft bust, btw, ftw.

Enjoyed Caleb qua villain: he's more nuanced than some of the more cardboard-racist sub-villains, but what's great about him is that all the main characters totally clock him as evil, no matter how much more respectful or nice he might be in the moment.

Big questions about the ending, how the Mark of Cain works, and a very interesting reading of what Atticus & co. have actually done to Caleb.

Went through all the chapters individually, talking about what struck us. A couple of us described reading Ruby's chapter "ready to wince", but not actually having to. Ruby remains a problematic character for us, since she keeps the option to be white (and is the only member of the cast who withholds information during their final planning).

Ruby's line "I want to be a sherpa", it was pointed out, is maybe the saddest line in the book. Even in her fantasies, she's only a servant in the places she'd like to be.

Talked about sensitivity readers, research, and the potentially-thorny issue of a white writer fleshing out these stories from black perspectives. And it seems like Ruff did a pretty good job; see Nisi Shawl's review, for instance, for a few pitfalls he avoided.

We liked the straightforward way that haunted house tropes were used in "The Which House", and liked the way it showed more of Letitia as a character. We were a little worried about the pluckmeter in the first chapter. Also, Letitia's fortitude in claiming the Winthrop house was maybe the most concrete example of the "supernatural evil vs. actual evil": the potential of actually being a homeowner, coupled with the hatred of her white neighbors, overwhelmingly outweigh even the most sinister threats the house can conjure.

"Abdullah's Book" was agreed to be the lightest chapter, very low-stakes, though fun. We liked the Indiana-Jonesy story, and the large cast of (worryingly red-shirt-like) lodge members.

Hippolyta's chapter was the favorite of a few of us. It's stylistically a bit different, both more personal (she has the most backstory, and feels most substantial as a cahracter as a result) and more otherworldly (literally and otherwise). We also sprung off Hippolyta's frustrated desire to be a professional astronomer to talk about Atticus & others' passionate reading of SF/F, Horace's comic creation—these are completely believable characters, there were surely many real people like them, but the traditional narrative of "who's interested in astronomy, who reads & writes science fiction" has erased so many women and people of color that having examples as protagonists feels great. We talked about the essay Ruff references—Pam Nole's "Shame", about how being a black nerd is not a new phenomena, as well as how other groups of fans, nerds, & creators have been erased or unacknowledged.

We thought "the Narrow House" the bleakest in the collection, and juxtaposed the time-loop with the difficulty of a mixed-race couple finding safe haven to good effect. We also liked how it built Montrose's character, but we were kind of bummed that Atticus doesn't get to see any of that.

Montrose's relation with Atticus and others led us to talk about whether or not it constitutes abuse, the problematic nature of needing to discipline children when some of their behavior could literally lead to life or death—referenced Ta-Nahesi Coates' essay "Letter to My Son" from Between the World and Me.

Talked a lot about white privileging in genre works, particularly the mostly-invisible kind where characters are assumed to be white. Talked about writers working against that, even when the writers are themselves white, including Le Guin's Earthsea books (famously mis-cast in the television adaptation), Lauren Beukes' work (we read The Shining Girls a while back), and Max Gladstone's Craft sequence.

We talked about the choice of setting this in Chicago, New England, and other Northern locations, and the common idea that "racism is a Southern thing" in the States, despite the history and persistence of northern racism. I noted that, not a Chicago native, Lovecraft Country was the first time I heard of either the Chicago or Tulsa riots; members also brought up Chicago's history of redlining to explain some of its ongoing segregation.

Very good discussion of an enjoyable novel.

In January, we are reading Sourdough by Robin Sloan! It's CNSC's 100th book club meeting! Very exciting. We've also picked February's book: "Midnight Riot" by Ben Aaronavitch.

Keep up with Chicago Nerds on their website and Facebook group, and you can also find lots of other cool events going on at our gracious hosts, Open Books.

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