Gormenghast, alchemy and conspiracy: books read

SOMETIME, NEVER was a 1950s British anthology reprinted by Ballantine Books in the late 1960s (apparently they were providing anthologies for schoolkids at the time as the introduction warns readers This Is Not Kid Stuff). The money-shot story is “Boy in Darkness,” a bizarrely creepy tale by Mervyn Peake. A fourteen-year-old aristocrat, fed up with the endless rituals he undergoes, runs away from his castle home and into the hands of a monstrous Lamb and its man-beast servants. While I didn’t know it when I first read the book, the protagonist is Titus Groan of Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy (I reread Titus Groan and Gormenghast some years back), which makes it that much more interesting.

The other two stories are much less so.  William Golding’s “Envoy Extraordinary” is a stock story of an inventor before his time, in this case offering steam power and explosives to ancient Rome; the ending implication China got all its advanced inventions from the West is annoying and somewhat racist. John Wyndham’s “Consider Her Ways” has a woman get a precognitive glimpse of a future without men. It’s heavy on exposition and sexist (though at least it has some novelty in the social structure) — and of course, an all-women future with no sex now looks laughably dated.MIDDLEGAME by Seanan McGuire has a 19th century alchemical experiment reach fruition in the late 20th century when separated-at-birth twins Roger and Dodger make psychic contact and discover they also have matching superhuman abilities to manipulate, respectively, numbers and words. What they don’t know is that the alchemist’s revenant protege created them to embody cosmic forces with which he can manipulate reality itself. This is written very differently from McGuire’s usual style and for the first 300 pages it was gripping (though while I like the idea of Cosmic Wisdom hidden in children’s book, it also feels like recycled Lisa Goldstein); at 500 pages it dragged, and the concepts become very hand-wavey (I concede I’d have forgiven that if I liked the book more).

A LOT OF PEOPLE ARE SAYING: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy by Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum argues that classic political paranoid conspiracy theories now share space with “conspiracism.” Where older theories tried to explain unsettling events (how could the US have lost China to communism?) by connecting the dots (albeit in nonsensical ways) conspiracism dispenses with dots and builds conspiracies based on no evidence at all. QAnon, for example, conceives a conspiracy with zero evidence — no victims, no stories of Captured By Satanic Pedophiles; birtherism isn’t based on any evidence, just a refusal to believe The Black Democrat could be a legitimate president. The authors argue this is worse than classic conspiracy thinking as it attacks the very idea of legitimacy, science or authority — it’s just alternate facts or false news so their facts are as good as the truth. The book concludes that as this thinking thrives on the right, the best way out is for Republican leaders to stand up and denounce the bullshit; I doubt they’d be surprised it went the other way with a complete rejection of the goverment’s legitimacy (except the elections they won, of course).

#SFWApro. Covers by Gervasio Gallardo and Bob Pepper, all rights to images remain with current holders.

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