Friday, February 17, 2017

Think Galactic- Uprooted

For the February meeting of Think Galactic, we discussed Naomi Novik's 2015 novel Uprooted. The Nebula-winning story is a kind of classic fantasy with much inspiration from Polish fairy tales, following a young witch as she learns about magic and tries to fight off an evil Wood that's creeping over her land.

We really quite liked it, and had a top-notch discussion. Brief notes and possible spoilers below:

In our initial go-around, we brought up a bunch of topics we'd expand on through the evening:
  • Very intrigued by the magic "system", particularly the kind used by Agnieszka. More artistic than many recent fantasy examples; we compared it a great deal to folk arts, musical improvisation, and especially cooking.
  • How much to consider this YA. Inconclusive!
  • Baba Jaga is a plus.
  • We liked the friendship angle on Kasia & Agnieszka, although to be honest we found Kasia herself, dare we say it, a bit wooden.
  • Unexpectedly steamy magic/sex scenes.
  • The Wood is one of the most compelling parts of the novel; a really complex evil that we spent a good deal of time analyzing.
  • Talking about this in relation to the epic fantasy tradition ("is this epic fantasy?"), and particularly what it's doing with Tolkien and some other sources.
  • "What's the deal with corruption?" Wondering what the Wood's influence stands for—thinking of the long SF/F tradition of using corruption/infestation/contamination as a way to think about other issues.
  • We liked a lot of little nonstandard things about the plot mechanics—Agnieszka doesn't fall into most of the expectations of the genre or those around her.
  • We had some critiques of the writing, almost entirely at a pacing level—a few places where it feels rough/weak, and a general consensus that it's just a little too long, somehow. The village/Wood/tower are extremely strong; the court intrigues & battle scenes felt weak by comparison.
  • Analysis of the Dragon re: being a big jerk.
Not to be confused with Silverchair,
remember them?
Top-notch discussion, as I said. We talked a bit about some of the possible sources and influences on Uprooted, wondering how much of Polynia/Rosya maps to Poland/Russia. The prince's doomed quest for his mother put me in mind a bit of The Silver Chair, one of Lewis's Narnia entries. Rather predictably, I also threw myself flailing into a Tolkien referential fugue: there are strong uses here of the Old Wood in Lord of the Rings, with the heart-trees' following Old Man Willow pretty closely:
Tom's words laid bare the hearts of trees and their thoughts, which were often dark and strange, and filled with a hatred of things that go free upon the earth, gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning...none were more dangerous than the Great Willow: his heart was rotten, but his strength was green; and he was cunning, and a master of winds, and his song and thought ran through the woods on both sides of the river. His grey thirsty spirit drew power out of the earth and spread like fine-root threads in the ground, and invisible twig-fingers in the air...
-Book I, "In the House of Tom Bombadil"
There's also some interesting resonances with the history of Yavanna & the ents—a protective, frequently wronged forest-force—and possibly with Melian, Galadriel, and other "perilous woodsy queens" in the Silmarillion and elsewhere.

Talking about the evil of the Wood in Uprooted—which is a really well-done malevolence, lots of actual horrific bits, satisfyingly inhuman—sketched out a possible answer to the "what's the deal with corruption" question: it has to do with trauma, with a kind of unhealthy anger, self-consuming, and—we also talked about where the title comes from—is connected with being cut off from the past, from community, from wholeness. Which throws me back to A Wizard of Earthsea and our discussion of it, now that I think about it—much of that plot (and others of Le Guin's) having to do with personal "wholeness" and its absence.

While not in the same caliber as Uprooted,
writing-wise, I couldn't help but notice that
"the Summoning" plays out a lot like the
Sword of Truth in Brooks.
That discussion interwove with how we looked at Agnieszka versus the "wizarding world", particular the Dragon: her character and magic are rooted in folk traditions and living nature, while most of the other magic-users, and the Dragon in particular, seem to rely on both highly artificial, controlled practices and social isolation. Lots of discussion about how much we liked the way magic is used and presented in the novel, with lots of comparison to cooking and music. While, as aforementioned, we thought Kasia qua character was pretty bland, we really liked her relationship with Agnieszka. The possession/excorcism scenes were particularly effective, and had us referencing horror movies (and also brought Lewis to my mind again: Weston's devolution in Perelandra), and we really liked the "Summoning" spell and its unflinching truth-revealing, which the two get through anyway.
Spent a good deal of time investigating the Dragon and his jerkiness. We liked him more as a character once we meet other magic folk—Alosha especially—and get a better feel for how he fits into this world. Lots of discussion of how magic works and shapes its users here—we were amused by the idea of the quietly immortal monk just trucking along for decades before anybody, even he, notices he isn't aging. Much as we like the magic here, we do note that it's a "born with it" situation (maybe it's Magic-elline?), and that led us into talking about how that approach to magic (as opposed to it being something anyone can learn) is kind of profoundly classist or even smacks of divine right. A discussion of the problem of "midi-chlorians" in Star Wars ensued. At the very least, we conceived of the idea of Midichlori-ade to really boost those telekinetic abilities. (BTW, I recommend Aaron Diaz's essay a while back on Star Wars and Harry Potter.)

We liked the parallels between the Dragon and the Queen in the Wood once we started thinking about them. Discussion of the Tower led us to tower/tunnel references, which VanderMeer's Annihilation has made inevitable for us ever since we discussed it. That kind of linked back into our talk about how the Wood's corruption is effectively horrific: talking about the spores and "strangling fruit" of Annhilation alongside the idea that being contaminated by the Wood is at least as terrifying as any of its physical monsters. The tower and other aspects of Uprooted—the descent into a foundation kind of haunted by previous events, the current evil as actually a twisted justice for an ancient wrong, things about how nature is dealt with—really put me in mind of Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, but it's hard to say if that might be an influence or if Williams was just pulling on a lot of the same sources that inspired Novik. MST has a Baba Jaga, too, one should note.

I've been thinking about doing a re-read of those for a while, and mentioning that took us into a brief and intriguing digression on re-reading and how things age. Reading great contemporary fantasy like Uprooted—Think Galactic's read N.K. Jemisin & Sofia Samatar recently, for instance—has a kind of spoiling effect on most (not all) older fantasy. It's that much harder to overlook the frequent sexual and cultural erasure (at best) with good modern counterexamples in addition to being a bit older and wiser readers. As seems to happen every few clubs, we debated the wisdom of re-reading McCaffrey's Pern books—which debate also wrapped around to Novik's Temeraire series, blurbed as "Napoleonic wars w/dragons".

Lots of discussion about how this flips the script a bit on "Nature Benevolent"—intriguing that Uprooted uses a lot of nature signifiers (the color green, the smell of fresh plants) to indicate evil rather than good. We wondered if the increasing urbanization of humans has led us to look with nostalgic eyes at nature, where folks that historically lived close to potentially dangerous/predator-harboring forests weren't exactly all tree-huggy all the time. Some hilarious slash socially-insightful anecdotes on city vs. rural life were shared, and we mentioned The Blair Witch Project and some others as counterexamples to the "nature automatically equals good" trend.

Tons of other awesome discussion points I didn't capture well enough to write up. Half-decipherable notes include:
  • The Police song "Don't Stand So Close to Me"
  • Of secretly-turned Wood-agents: "They're plants!"
  • My Fair Lady, Pygmalion, Galatea, Galatea 2.2, documentaries on sex robots
  • "Prickly mortification"
  • High art vs. low art (false) distinction—talking of magic styles
  • Silvia Moreno-Garcia's Signal to Noise
  • Much discussion of Twin Peaks and Black Lodge mixed in here somehow
  • Memory, trauma, and not being able to move on.
  • It was Rex Harrison who we couldn't remember.
Truly wonderful discussion. Next time! We are reading Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer who, I should note, is doing a reading THE DAY BEFORE our meeting: March 7th @ 57th St. Books in Hyde Park. You can keep up with Think Galactic on their website, Facebook, and Goodreads.

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