Review: Furnace by Livia Llewellyn

Trigger warnings: Graphic, violent sexual assault in the last three stories, grotesque imagery, graphic violence

Second book club review of the year! We read Furnace by Livia Llewellyn with our February genre of Horror.

I feel so torn about this book.

When I read the reviews for it I feel like I’m just not the right audience or maybe I just didn’t “get it” because I tried really hard but for the most part I’m left… meh.

The book is a series of horror vignettes with no solid throughline except that most of them are set in the Pacific Northwest.

My experience through 75% of this book was reading, feeling like I understood what was going on, paying attention carefully, and then the ending things would happen and I would be left feeling like I was waiting for something to happen. But it never did. I mean, things most certainly happened, but they didn’t impact me much. I felt horror at times but never fear and I know those are two separate feelings but it still surprised me that at no point was I scared or even uneasy.

The author’s writing is fucking gorgeous. Her talent for writing is undeniable.

But.

I am a firm believer that if you are going to depict sexual assault or make that a major point of focus in your work, you need to justify the hell out of it. Both the choice to include it and the choice to depict the scene graphically on the page. In the first story that really went for it with using it as a major plot point it is an epistolary vignette from the perspective of a young teen girl. It isn’t even written in a way that feels fearful, it just felt like it was trying to shock the reader by how awful it all was. It was a cheap shot at shocking people and I was thoroughly disgusted by it. The second story also featured a rape. A very graphic, violent rape enacted by a demon who has been stalking this woman since she was a child. I get it, demons do evil shit, if this had been the only or maybe even the first story to depict assault I would have been a bit more resigned with it but it was right after that other one and I felt a firm strike two had been struck. The third and final story was the third, and perhaps most damning, strike. A woman is fucked hard and rough and even though she tells him repeatedly to slow down and that he’s hurting her his only response is “make me” and then later he treats her gently before another rough fucking and she decides to stay with him. This was horrific in its clear depiction of, I felt, a domestic abuse relationship but I don’t know if that is what the author intended. By this time the book was done and I was left feeling bitterly disappointed.

Maybe I just need to read more horror, maybe this just isn’t a genre for me, or maybe this just isn’t the right author for me. I really tried to enjoy it. I did enjoy a few of the stories. But when it came to those last few were rape was used so cheaply and without any warning anywhere in the copy or reviews, I felt soured on the whole experience.

Review: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

This was another book club read! July’s genre was Cyberpunk and of the options presented we chose Autonomous by Annalee Newitz.

This was the first (and so far only) cyberpunk novel I’ve read and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’m still not sure how I feel about the novel but I’ll do my best to suss it out as I go here. Another quick note is that this is also the first novel by a nonbinary author I’ve ever read (to the best of my knowledge). I mention that here because representation is important and so no one tries to correct my use of “they” when I reference the author.

Falling back on the Amazon synopsis for this one:

“Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world in a submarine as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, doing repetitive tasks until they become unsafe or insane.

Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his robotic partner, Paladin. As they race to stop information about the sinister origins of Jack’s drug from getting out, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understand.

And underlying it all is one fundamental question: Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?”

The overall genre has never interested me but this synopsis did because the question of autonomy, what is it and who can have it, etc., is one that intrigues the moody philosopher in me. I also enjoy a Robin Hood angle anytime, in space or earth. The book takes on some very big concepts beyond autonomy.

One prevalent issue is that of patents and freedom of information. I appreciated the way Newitz recognized this topic’s nuances. It would have been easy for them to push Jack as an uncomplicated hero and being anti-patent as a clear, moral victory. However, they acknowledge the issues that can come from unchecked patent freedom including the costs if medications aren’t peer reviewed and checked for side effects. A distinct difference between Jack and the anti-patent people and the patent companies is that Jack feels remorse and tries to make things better whereas the patent companies are truly soulless, faceless corporations that don’t care about human cost as much as literal, financial cost. I also appreciated the discussion of productivity and quality of life. I think pretty much everyone in the book club was concerned by how wistful we were at the idea of a medication that makes you incredibly productive and happy about it. But that also isn’t something we could easily discount as evil because there will always be people who have to take on these jobs no one else wants and if there is something that can make it easier for them, is it cruel to deprive them of it? Then again, if they are always content, won’t that lead to further human rights violations because there won’t even be the pressure of people raising issues over the conditions they work in.

As I said, Newitz does a great job of presenting these issues without pushing the reader too hard in either direction. They just present a set of societal concerns and let their characters work in this world, their choices shaped by their unique values and goals.

At times, perhaps because of my unfamiliarity with the genre, I felt that the language grew needlessly complicated and “techy” as though the author were trying to really hammer home that this is a Sci Fi Futuristic Setting. At the same time the actual changes or signs of futurism in the novel were fairly realistic.

Perhaps the true main character is the robot Paladin. The discussion surrounding gender identity was just as prevalent as the discussion surrounding autonomy with this character. Newitz makes it clear that robots are genderless and that even the gender or sex of the brain that is used in their development does not implant a gender on the robot themselves. Paladin is very clear about this with their partner, Eliasz, and yet when Paladin discovers that their brain was from a woman, Eliasz uses this information as a justification for the sexual feelings he is having for Paladin. Paladin chooses to use female pronouns at this point because she sees that it helps Eliasz feel better and she feels drawn to Eliasz so she is willing to live with that label. This is an especially poignant and somewhat distressing choice based on the gender identity of the author. I wondered as I read it if the author was sharing some real life experience there from past relationships and what was expected from them.

The relationship between Paladin and Eliasz is a difficult one. First of all it’s difficult because Eliasz is a bigoted prick whose tragic backstory is some children saw him on his knees by a robot and accused him of being a “f****t” and now he is hyper afraid of people thinking he’s gay.

Side Note: I took real issue with the use of the F-slur. Both because it’s an ugly word but also because surely in the future there would be a slur specific to fucking robots.

The relationship between Eliasz and Paladin is very much the story of one man projecting desire and even gender identity onto a character so it fulfills his needs and justifies his choices. Paladin never rejects the advances or the identity, but they also very clearly go along with it for Eliasz’s sake. In their very relationship, Paladin is stripped of autonomy. In the end Eliasz buys Paladin to set her/them free but I couldn’t help but read this as a man buying his partner for himself. This might be too harsh but I just couldn’t get on board with the relationship, nor could I decide where Newitz landed on it.

There is a lot of interesting plot material in here including run-ins with other robots who have very strong, clear opinions on autonomy and Jack’s plotline is also interesting. In the end, as I write this review, I think I enjoyed the book more than I realized at the time. I appreciate that it still has me thinking about it and that Newitz was able to avoid infodumping which would have been easy based on the worldbuilding they developed alone. There is also a couple of side characters I find fascinating and would have read an entire book about but I hope you’ll find out more about them if you pick up the book yourself.

Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I’ve been planning on starting a book club since I was in undergrad and am so proud to announce that this year I finally jumped in and started one! I tried googling to find advice about how to run a book club but didn’t find much that was helpful so I ended up making something that has worked so far for us. Each month, going in alphabetical order, someone gets to choose the genre for the month and then everyone can submit choices of novels for us to read in that genre. We then vote for the book we want to read and whichever one wins, we read. The only set rule is that the books have to be no more than 300 pages to accommodate people’s schedules. It’s an imperfect system but we’re seven months in and it’s going ok! The genre for our first book club was Fantasy and the book we ended up reading was The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.

This was the second of Ishiguro’s works I’ve read, having been introduced to him in undergrad when we read The Remains of the Day. This is a very different novel, however, and I think I ended up liking this one better than the other.

Though it is genuinely a fantasy novel it is not the typical dragons and swords book that comes to mind (though both a dragon and swords are in this novel). It is set post-Arthurian Britain and the main characters in the novel are Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple who find themselves losing their memories at an alarming rate and choose to try and go in search of their son who they can hardly remember and have been filling in the gaps with their own projected desires or beliefs. There is a mist that has spread throughout Britain complicating matters and we follow the couple as they journey to find answers and companions on their quest including a former Knight for King Arthur and a boy determined to find and save his mother.

This book left me feeling deeply, deeply, sad. But not in a bad way. In a reflective way that sort of feels good in its own strange, aching way. I related to Axl a great deal and his quest to make everything be ok and fight hard to refuse change. The novel also brings into question what being a hero is and who you can trust, including yourself, in times of chaos. I enjoyed the choice Ishiguro made to have the main characters be elderly because so often, especially in fantasy, the protagonists are in their prime and at the start of their journey, looking forward more than they look back.

Not everyone was affected by The Buried Giant in the same way I was though it still caused a good conversation and everyone took something away from it.