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The Power

April 19, 2018

Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power begins with a letter, but most readers will quickly skim through it and start getting caught up in the revenge fantasy. In this fictional world, women have the power to fight back. They can produce an electrical charge with their bare hands.

The possibilities, of course, are many and obvious. No longer do women have to be afraid to walk alone. No longer do they have to put up with obnoxious and threatening behavior. No longer do they have to watch while men are promoted into positions for which they are more qualified.

Bridget Read, writing for Vogue, describes one of these reversals: “In one genius scene, a reversal of the 2016 presidential election debates so delicious it stings, Margot lets herself do what Hillary Clinton never could. Under verbal attack from her unctuous old boss in a gubernatorial race, she reaches out and stuns him in the chest. Instead of being castigated for it, called a bitch, or a harpy, or a ‘nasty woman,’ the unthinkable happens. She wins.”

Women all over the world discover the power and learn how to use it. The novel focuses on four main characters from different walks of life: the heiress to a crime empire based in London, a female politician in the U.S., a sexually abused foster daughter who founds a religion, and a male reporter from Nigeria.

For me, it was extremely satisfying to read the religious proclamations from the abused foster child. She says “you have been taught that you are unclean, that you are not holy, that your body is impure and could never harbor the divine. You have been taught to despise everything you are and to long only to be a man. But you have been taught lies. God lies within you, God has returned to earth to teach you, in the form of this new power.”

The power is quite literal, and in good science fiction style, Alderman provides a mechanism for its development–her story is that towards the end of World War Two humans developed a way to distribute never-ending protection against nerve gas in drinking water, and that in the process of shipping it to friendly nations a tanker was sunk and the treated water entered the earth’s water cycle. In the novel, “research has now established it as the undoubted trigger, once certain concentrations had been reached, for the development of the electrostatic power in women.”

The four main characters interact with people all over the world, and their conversations and travels show how the power affects everyone. In the U.S., women are told to control their power and schools teach classes in abstinence, mentioning a twist on an 80’s anti-drug slogan for satiric effect: “Just Don’t Do It.”

In the second half of the novel, the changes that have been brought about as a result of the power tip the balance until women are in a position to abuse their power, as men are today. Tunde, the Nigerian reporter, finds himself in a country where the Minister for Justice has just begun to institute laws against men, like that “each man in the country must have his passport and other official documents stamped with the name of his female guardian. Her written permission will be needed for any journey he undertakes….Any man who does not have a sister, mother, wife or daughter, or other relative, to register him must report to the police station, where he will be assigned a work detail and shackled to other men for the protection of the public. Any man who breaks these laws will be subject to capital punishment. This applies also to foreign journalists and other workers.”

The reversal is underscored by the reminder that the foreign journalists in the room have “been here since it was a grim staging post in the business of human trafficking. And the reversal is then exaggerated, in good satiric style, by the ensuing conversation the male journalists have, back at their hotel:
“Something’s about to break out in Iran, I’m pretty sure. I’ll go there.”
“And when something breaks out in Iran,” drawls Semple of the BBC, “what do you think will happen to the men?”
Hooper shakes his head. “Not in Iran. Not like this. They’re not going to change their beliefs overnight, cede everything to the women.”
“You do remember,” continues Semple, “that they turned overnight when the Shah fell and the Ayatollah came to power? You do remember that it happens that quickly?”
There’s a moment of quiet.

A series of letters closes the book, supposedly written by “Neil,” a young male writer asking advice about how to get his novel published, and “Naomi,” who offers him advice about his novel—the novel you’ve just finished reading. Perhaps at this point you’ll remember that a letter from Neil appeared at the beginning of the book. Neil’s letters are full of submissive apologies and expressions of thanks, like “Anyway, sorry, I’ll shut up now … Thank you so much for this and I’m so grateful you could spare the time”. Naomi’s letters are full of condescension, and she ends with a rather chilling piece of advice, asking Neil if he has “considered publishing this book under a woman’s name.” Which, evidently, is what has happened. Clever, isn’t it?

This epistolary ending reveals the full extent of the satire on the use and abuse of power. As Bridget Read says, “it does audaciously depict…the most extreme results of a movement that seeks rather than interrogates power.” So yes, this is a feminist work, and timely in terms of the “me too” movement, but it does not argue in favor of simply turning the tables as a way to right any of the wrongs.

In an interview in the New York Times, Alderman says that as a Jew, she has imagined what she would have done, had she lived at the time of the Holocaust, “but for me the larger question about the Holocaust is not, How do you avoid being a victim? It is, How do you avoid being a Nazi?”

That is the big question of this novel.

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Getting It Right

April 15, 2018

Several months ago Ron and I went to a big party at the enormous Victorian-style house of some local friends who work at the college. They invited most of the people we work with, so the rooms were crowded. I did what I often do in that kind of situation and spent some time looking at the titles on their bookshelves. They have many, many bookshelves so it took a while, and in one room I noticed that there were several copies of a book. Guessing that it was written by a friend who’d sent them multiple copies, I picked it up and sat down to look at it.

The first chapter, which I read while people circulated around me, was interesting enough that when we sought out the hostess to say goodbye, I asked her about the book. She insisted I take the copy I’d picked up, which was a little embarrassing, but after a couple of reiterations I decided it was a genuine offer and the thing to do would be to finish reading it and give the author some free publicity. And so I give you a few thoughts on Karen E. Osborne’s novel Getting It Right, published in 2017.

The first line of the novel is “Jim Smyth died young but not soon enough.” We meet three people at his funeral—Kara, Flyer, and Tuesday—who have come to find out if seeing their “childhood torturer” in a “deep, dank, and lonely hole” would make them feel safer in the world. We find out that these three have been friends “since Kara was six, Tuesday five, and Flyer four; first in the Smyths’ home in foster care, and then in a group home until Kara aged out at eighteen.” They grew up in the Bronx, and descriptions reveal that Flyer wears his hair in “dreads” and Tuesday has a “dyed-blonde Afro, buzzed close” while Kara has “honey-beige skin.” After reading the first chapter, I was unsurprised to be told that the author has experience working in social services.

Although the first chapter focuses on Kara, the second chapter switches focus to a new character, Alex, whose father is in the hospital, and who asks her to find someone. That person, of course, turns out to be her half-sister, Kara, who still treasures a photo of herself with Alex and their father, taken when they were three years old.

Kara is dating a married man named Zach who shows up late for their dates and leaves early, pausing only to ask her to deliver mysterious envelopes. Although it takes Kara half the novel to figure out that he’s using her, it takes readers about half a page. It turns out that Kara has a mother-substitute landlady and a fellow lodger, Danny, who she thinks of as a brother and who works as a cop. They enjoy cozy late-night snacks together in the kitchen, the description of which irritated me because not only does slender Kara allow herself to eat late at night, but when the food is served she “only nibbled on hers in spite of her earlier hunger.” The author is trying to make a point about Kara’s unbalanced mental state here, but my irritation over what might well be something a thin woman can actually experience took me right out of the fiction.

Another food description, later in the novel, also took me away from the story, when Alex is asked if she likes Japanese food and says yes because “she liked Chinese okay, would it taste the same? It didn’t” and then a page later “their food came and they both dug in,” followed by Alex declaring that her “rad na” is “yummy.” Is this a carelessness about food that I don’t share, or is it the result of trouble with pacing dialogue to correspond to action?

Eventually Zach’s bad treatment triggers Kara’s PTSD from her treatment at the hands of Jim, the abusive foster father, and she realizes she has to leave him because “no one—not Big Jim, not Zach, no one—was going to do this to her again.” Flyer and Tuesday are also struggling with PTSD, which provides a backdrop to Kara’s story.

Before the end, Alex takes Kara to the hospital, where she finally gets to ask their father why he didn’t come for her after her mother died and he admits that he didn’t believe her grandmother’s suspicions about her foster home. Then the shady business dealings Zach has involved her in result in Kara being taken away by the FBI and her former brother-figure Danny, the cop, rescuing her. When Kara and Alex meet again, she says to her “I read somewhere that children either make all of the mistakes of their parents, or they break the cycle,” giving us hope for their future and alluding to the title.

Getting It Right is a quick read and a mostly enjoyable novel, living up to the promise of its first chapter. While suitable for party-time reading, it would also be a good beach or airplane book.

Melian and Spring

April 12, 2018

A little over a month ago, we adopted a six-month-old kitten from a local shelter. We named her Melian, which is from the Silmarillion (and other books about Tolkien’s mythology). When we found her at the shelter she was extremely sick and scared. She’d lived her whole life with little attention from humans, it seems, and then in the space of a week she was spayed and had to get most of her immunizations. We took her home two days after her spaying, and she stayed under the furniture in Eleanor’s room for a week except for a trip to the vet to treat her vomiting and diarrhea, which turned out to be mostly from nerves (we didn’t improve our relationship or her nerves when we tried to give her medicine).

Once she settled down enough to be introduced to Pippin and Tristan and have the run of the house, she had some litter box issues. This was just as Walker was moving out of our house and into an apartment. When most of the stuff was out of his centrally-located bedroom, we put a box at the door of the room with “cat attract” litter, and she began to use it. Then after a few weeks of getting more comfortable in our household routines, she caught a cold that turned into a respiratory infection and had to endure another trip to the vet, an antibiotic shot, and eye medicine before she could get her final immunization, which she had yesterday.

Now she is seven months old, which is kind of like a ten-year-old in human years. She’s had a rough start, but we’re hoping that with time and patience, we can tame her and get her to trust us. I’ve spent most of a month letting Pippin and Tristan in and out of the house, rather than giving them free access to the cat flap, and we’re all a little irritated by that. The next step will be teaching Melian how to go outside with the other two and stay close to home.

Anyone have tips for doing that? Tristan was easy to lure with treats, and he mostly stayed close to us so we could catch him and pick him up. Pippin learned very young, with a halter. Melian is extremely hard to catch and so far can wiggle out of the halter, although I think the offer of treats might work with her if she’s near enough to hear me say the word and rattle the container.

It seems appropriate, in this spring of broken government and broken promises (like “fiscal responsibility” and a “balanced budget”), to be struggling to earn the trust of a half-wild little creature who is too old to be easily malleable and too young to be trusted on her own. The pleasures of a half-grown kitten (and they are many—as I type, I am taking breaks to run the red laser dot around the living room floor for Melian to spring upon) have been mixed with the uncertainty of letting loose in our house a small carnivore who may not have been well-treated and who we don’t yet know very well. The uncertainty verges on recklessness when we think about letting her loose in our yard. Her beauty may not be enough to defend her against the actions of neighbors like the one who just moved in and put up a yard sign in favor of electing the man who spent five months yelling at me through a bullhorn that I was going to hell for holding a sign supporting affordable health care.

Spring
Edna St. Vincent Millay

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
April
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

It is not enough. But it is what we have, and at my house we are trying to savor the small pleasures of kittens, flowers, and absurdities from the occasional maggot-eaten brains we meet along the way.

Political Poem

April 3, 2018

I’ve found it difficult to write about poetry here since November 9, 2017. There are a lot of reasons for that. The main ones are that I’ve had to volunteer and organize others at the local political level, so I haven’t made as much time for meditative blog writing, and I’m less willing to say what I think and feel to the world in general. The world is a meaner and more dangerous place than I used to believe.

It’s national poetry month, though, so I thought I’d make an effort. I thought maybe I could start with a political poem, like this one by Jeffrey Harrison that makes me think of George Washington’s song from Hamilton, One Last Time, about wanting to sit under his own vine and fig tree. Fragments of the lyrics from that song float through my mind, with a by-now familiar ironic tinge:
“It outlives me when I’m gone.”  “After 45 years of my life dedicated to its service. ” “No one will make them afraid.”

And then I read Harrison’s poem, from what seems like a better time in history, but still lamenting a lost golden age:

Political Poem

Gone are the days,
are the centuries, even,
when government officials
retired to become
poets in gardens
of their own design,
as here in Suzhou
happened for so long:
a gnarled shaft
of limestone here,
there a willow’s
green locks swaying
above the fishpond,
a zigzag bridge
to a pagoda where,
far from the capital,
one could finally
attend to matters
of real importance:
the moon’s reflection
troubled by a carp.

Matters of real importance. We decide what’s important every moment, by spending our time on it. tumblr_o56anfavUc1qdj8m0o1_1280tumblr_o56anfavUc1qdj8m0o2_1280

Poetry is still important in my life, so I made a halting effort to talk about it today.

And voting is important. If you’re an American, I hope you’ve registered to vote. The deadline for registering in Ohio is April 9, for voting in the May 8 primary.

Pride and Prometheus

March 26, 2018

Although I resisted for a day, I finally bought the last signed copy of Pride and Prometheus by this year’s ICFA guest of honor, John Kessel, while at the conference. One of the things that decided me was hearing his guest of honor address, entitled “Mary, Jane, and Me,” in which he delineated some rules for good fiction that uses characters and settings derived from other works of fiction—the most important being that the new story should not depend entirely on knowledge about the older one.

I had just re-read Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, in preparation for the 200th birthday celebration and my presentation on reanimation, resurrection, and necromancy in fiction since its publication in 1818, so I was primed to enjoy this new story. One of the things my re-reading reminded me of is that Victor Frankenstein creates his monster using alchemy, not by stitching him together from parts of different bodies—that’s an image from monster movies and later fiction.

Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice were published five years apart and there are ten years between when the events of Pride and Prejudice close and those of Frankenstein begin, so there are connections worth mining. In Kessel’s mashup of the two novels, an older Mary Bennett meets Victor Frankenstein shortly before the interval in Shelley’s novel when Victor goes to England to build his creature a wife.

Since I’d just been reminded that the creature was created with alchemy, I especially enjoyed Kessel’s description of him as uncanny:
“There is no obvious flaw in my countenance. My hair is thick and luxuriant, my brow noble. One might object to my cloudy eyes, my pale skin, or my dark lips—but I believe the trouble lies not in my difference from men, but in the too slight distance between them and myself. The very fact that I look so like them, when clearly by some token of my bearing, my expression, the way my lips or eyebrows move, I am not human, damns me. They look, and they see that something is wrong. I am some demonic semblance of a man. A monster.”

There are some elaborate jokes, like the polite dinner-table conversation when Victor and Henry Clerval are invited to Pemberley:
“’Have you taken the Matlock waters’ Mary asked Clerval, seated opposite her at the dinner table. ‘People in the parish swear that they can raise the dead.’
‘I confess that I have not,’ Clerval said. ‘Victor does not credit their healing powers.’
Mary turned to Frankenstein, hoping to draw him into discussion of the matter, but the startled expression on his face silenced her.

The plot involves the unexpected death of one of Mary’s sisters, Victor’s snatching of her body, Mary meeting the monster, and Mary’s longing to see her sister brought back to life, even though she can see that the monster is “a sham, an animated corpse, a hideous parody of a human being.”

I heard Kessel read a chapter of his novel out loud, and his voicing of the monster, who Mary calls “Adam,” was deep and hollow-sounding, which added to my enjoyment of the section where Mary teaches him to sing harmony:
“Mary sang a C as clearly as she could. As a girl she had always been praised for having perfect pitch. Years later Kitty confessed that everyone in the family had told Mary that simply to make her feel better about being plain.”

In this story, it is Mary Bennett who provides the circumstances for Clerval’s murder at the hands of Frankenstein’s monster, and it is a chance meeting with a Captain Walton some years after the events in which she was directly involved that gives Mary a chance to hear the rest of the story, over tea.

It’s a delightful meeting of worlds, made even better for me by the chance to read some of it while sitting by the pool at the conference, which is held in Orlando, and having the author walk up to me and say something charming and self-deprecating about what I was reading. I don’t remember exactly what, because I was deep into the world of his book.

Your Robot Dog Will Die

March 22, 2018

At the ICFA conference last weekend in Orlando, I went to a fiction reading because I wanted to hear Kij Johnson read (her story was wonderful, as always) and discovered Arin Greenwood, who read the first chapter of her novel Your Robot Dog Will Die and made us all laugh and cry.

Arin is an animal welfare journalist, and such a good writer that she can make you care–I’m not a dog lover, particularly, but I teared up when the robot dog died, even though the character kept reminding herself that it was only a robot getting “replaced.”

Some things are irreplaceable (that’s one of the points of my blog title) and this novel is so well-written and inventive that I read the whole thing while still at the conference, with lots of other distractions.

Set in a future world, the novel begins on “Dog Island,” somewhere in Florida after a prolonged drought, where three teenagers are testing a new version of a robot dog every year. At first it’s not clear what happened to the “organic” dogs. We find out that robot horses never caught on to replace the organic ones, and that “robot cats are being developed as a sort of insurance, in case what happened to the dogs happens to other animals as well.”

Gradually we learn that the narrator’s name is “Nano” and that her family was one of the “’founding families’ that moved to the sanctuary when the dog population got dangerously close to disappearing altogether.” We find out that there are six dogs in a refuge on the island but that humans who visit them have to wear special suits to hide their appearance and scent so the dogs won’t attack. Eventually we’re told that “about twenty-five years ago, some scientists thought it would be a smart idea to try and tinker with some dogs’ genes.” The effect was to create “a laboratory full of dogs who really hated humans” and then “somehow the changed DNA spread” until no one could keep dogs as pets anymore and the creator of one dog sanctuary, seeing how unhappy the dogs were, decided that she needed to end their suffering and worked with a biochemist to develop a quick euthanasia method called “Kinderend.”

The action of the novel begins when Nano visits the refuge and finds four puppies. “Three bare their teeth while hiding under their mother” but “one does something miraculous, and impossible: begins to wag its tiny tail.” Nano rescues the friendly puppy, because policy dictates that the other three must receive “Kinderend,” as the refuge can’t support more than six of these fierce dogs. When Nano questions the policy, her mother tells her “our species can’t be trusted. These innocent animals, beings, would have suffered. That would have been their fate.”

Nano and the puppy, who she names Donut, have to leave Dog Island and learn about how animals are treated in the outside world in order to figure out why everything she has been taught is a little twisted, why it might be better to let animals live rather than guarantee they will never suffer.

When Nano returns to Dog Island, she confronts the people in power, who declare that “we will not indulge the selfish desire to possess animals. It causes them suffering that cannot be measured.” There’s a terrible scene with an 80-year-old male macaw and her 80-year-old female owner because “he will probably live to be 150 years old. She will hopefully live to be 90.”

Eventually Nano manages to pave the way for the Dog Islanders to let more animals live and also make sure that they will be cared for.

It’s a good story, and a fast read. If you love animals, you will love it. Certainly it solidifies my view that we should always use the word “adopt” about animals, rather than “own.”

(Note: this novel will be available in April from Soho Press; I read an advance copy.)

 

My Survey of Necromancy in Fiction

March 19, 2018

This is a version of the paper I read at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, about all the fiction I’ve read featuring necromancy, reanimation, and resurrection.

Greater Than His Nature Will Allow: A Survey of Reanimation, Resurrection, and Necromancy in Fiction since Frankenstein by Jeanne Griggs

Victor Frankenstein, in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, says “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”
Victor’s warning to other would-be creators of life is based on two suppositions less familiar to us today than they were to readers in the early nineteenth century:
–That nature itself (or a nature-creating divinity) has intentions and goals.
–That humans are made in the image of God and are to rule the rest of creation.

Victor Frankenstein feels that he should not have tried to imitate the power that only God can properly employ to create life, and the subtitle “The Modern Prometheus” indicates that Victor has stolen the power to create life. Shelley’s introduction to the 1831 edition denigrates the reanimation Victor manages as a “slight spark of life” which can only “mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

In subsequent works of fiction, mortals who dare to attempt the god-like power of resurrection suffer similar disappointment, finding that the re-created life is a corrupted version. For instance, at the end of W.W. Jacobs’ 1902 story “The Monkey’s Paw,” the protagonist realizes that the reanimated body of his son cannot possibly retain anything of the person he knew and loved. And in H.P. Lovecraft’s 1922 story “Herbert West—Reanimator,” repeated attempts to restart bodies produce increasingly horrifying results.

In the twentieth century, stories about created beings made of flesh and bone began to move away from science fiction and towards fantasy. They are less about human ambition and the search for forbidden knowledge, and more about magic and being born with the power to raise the dead.

In Ursula K. LeGuin’s 1968 novel A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged has ambition–he is a seeker of knowledge who is drawn in by the use of dark magic he can’t control. He is the only one with the knowledge and talent necessary to repair the damage he has inflicted by letting an undead creature into the world of the living.

The seeker of knowledge who is drawn in by dark magic he can’t control is one of the main tropes of necromancy stories, from 1818 until today. While it sometimes has to do with the intellectual temptation of talking to the dead to find out about the afterlife, it’s also the impetus for the god-like thrill of re-animating dead bodies. Over-reachers who can’t resist the temptation to prove their mastery over death include the necromancer figure in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and LOTR, Lewis in Bellairs’ The House With a Clock in its Walls, Tammy in Martinez’s Gil’s All Fright Diner, Howard’s Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, the ancient Grisha named Morozova in Bardugo’s YA novel Ruin and Rising, Paulsen in Gjevre’s Requiem in La Paz, and Jamie in Stephen King’s Revival. These are traditional necromancer figures, ones who find out, one way or another, that necromancy never pays.

But starting with Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, in 2009, we begin to get more first-person accounts of necromancy. We sympathize with Johannes Cabal and find out what drives him. In more recent YA novels featuring a traditional necromancer figure we see young people who have learned how to reanimate dead bodies struggling with the ethics of using their powers. In F.M. Boughan’s Cinderella Necromancer, we see a lonely young girl trying to resist using the full extent of her newly-discovered dark power. The young necromancer Finn Gramaraye in Randy Henderson’s YA novel Finn Fancy Necromancy also wrestles with the question of whether a necromancer can ever defeat death and mentions “Monkey Paw consequences.” Even when it’s clear that necromancy doesn’t pay, these YA stories offer their young necromancers a redemption arc if they can resist the temptation to see their power as unlimited.

An enduring trope of necromancy tales is the overwhelming desire of a lover or relative to bring the dead person back to life. The father in Pet Sematary, by Stephen King, wants his wife and son back so much that he ignores the horrible way his cat came back to life, hoping against hope that it will be different with the people he loves. Andrew, in Beuhlman’s The Necromancer’s House, literally sells his soul to the devil in order to continue living with his lover Sarah and their dog after they have died. The Jinni turns aside the wish of a little boy who wants his mother back in Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, because he knows what horrors such a wish can produce.

Another major trope of necromancy stories is the puppet master, who has the power to reanimate bodies and uses it to supply more bodies for war, the purposes of another (usually a boss or ruler), or his own profit. The Death-Lord Arawn uses the power of the black cauldron, in Lloyd Alexander’s story of that name, to supply bodies for a war. Piers Anthony’s Jonathan of Xanth and Garth Nix’s Abhorsen can raise and command obedience from the dead. The Purple Emperor of Herbie Brennan’s novel is raised from the dead in order to keep the crown prince from ascending to his throne. Hades raises undead warriors to fight for his side in Riordan’s The Last Olympian.

The puppet masters in more recent fiction have a few qualms about animating their undead puppets. Although it’s Anita Blake’s job to raise the dead in Laurell K. Hamilton‘s Vampire Hunter series, she objects to removing too much of their free will. The evil necromancers in Jim Butcher’s novel Dead Beat have no qualms, but his hero Harry has plenty, being undead himself. In Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, Karou’s foster father Brimstone didn’t have too many qualms about raising the souls of his dead people so they could continue fighting a generations-long war, but when Karou becomes the resurrectionist of her people, her friend exclaims “you’re freaking Frankenstein!” and Karou indicates that her creations have free will by saying “If a human created ‘life,’ there could be no soul, only a poor benighted monster with no place in the world” whereas “I have the souls already….I’m just making the bodies.”

Related to the puppet master trope is the idea of the undead creature as a chimera, put together from parts of different bodies and also an impossible or foolish fancy. Although in Shelley’s novel Victor Frankenstein uses alchemy to create his monster, subsequent versions of the story of Frankenstein’s monster present him as a creature stitched together out of parts of different bodies (an image that gets comic treatment in the 1974 movie Young Frankenstein). The demon in Wells’ I Am Not a Serial Killer keeps himself alive with body parts he takes from different victims, chosen for their arms or eyes or whatever part he needs next. The Whatsitsname in Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad is also made and continually re-made from parts of bodies found blown up in the streets. Maggie Stiefvater’s hero Gansey is resurrected as The Raven King in a body miraculously patched together by a combination of nature and magic. Rather than a foolish fancy, Gansey’s resurrection is a necessary part of the power balance in his world.

Lust for power drives another common type of necromancer–the seeker of forbidden knowledge who keeps seeking because he or she wants to live forever. At first, the creatures created by these seekers exhibit a lack of soul or human feeling. They have no sense of agape, or love for fellow humans, like Frankenstein’s monster who says “if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear.” Stoker’s Dracula preys on humans with no sign of remorse. Vampire stories often feature creatures who have no human feeling, like the vampires in Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.

Other seekers of knowledge who want to live forever and exhibit a lack of human feeling include the Dark Magician Cob in LeGuin’s The Farthest Shore, Voldemort in Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and The Elementals in Francesca Lia Block’s book of that name. This kind of knowledge-seeker can also become a creature who possesses another in order to continue his own life, like Curwen in Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” Ephraim Waite in Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep,” and the demon who possesses Kate’s first husband Eric in Kenner’s Deja Demon.

Recent vampire stories usually twist this trope, featuring undead characters who want to live forever and can do it without much loss of human feeling and with very few adverse effects, like Rice’s vampire Lestat, Betsey and her vampire and werewolf friends in Davidson’s Undead and Unwed series, and members of the Cullen family in Meyer’s Twilight series.

Recent zombie stories also feature undead characters who exhibit no loss of human feeling, often because they played no part in their own reanimation. Like the vampire stories, many of these imagine happy endings for the originally-innocent monster like Frankenstein’s. The zombies in Waters’ Generation Dead are as bewildered about why they’ve come back to life as anyone else, and they struggle in a very human way with prejudice from the living—they prefer to be called “living impaired” or “differently biotic.” Carey’s Girl with all the Gifts, who doesn’t even know she’s a zombie at the beginning of the story, turns out to be a new and hardier kind of human, and is the key to the survival of a new kind of life on earth.

The girl in Wasserman’s Skinned, who wakes up to find that a download of her brain has been installed in an artificially-made but still flesh-and-blood body, exhibits no loss of human feeling. The long-dead general in Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, whose consciousness is downloaded by the main character, Cheris, helps his flesh-and-blood host assimilate some of his knowledge.

Many cyborg, robot, and Artificial Intelligence stories also show this progression away from an emphasis on the creator’s over-reaching or the creature’s lack of soul and towards an imagined happy ending for the brave new creature; this is still explored by science fiction writers today.

Fantasy writers usually head in a different direction. One of these is an increasingly common twist on the trope of the necromancer who is drawn in by the intellectual temptation of talking to the dead. The twist is that there’s a chosen one whose communication with a dead person results in that chosen one being compelled to continue a quest. The degree to which the living retain any free will varies. The people who work as “bodies” in Murphy’s novel The Possessions take a drug to summon the spirits of the dead so their loved ones can talk to them. Their job is set up to keep the dead from taking over the bodies of the living, but it turns out that someone else’s life can start to look good after they’ve lived it for long enough. Archivist Wasp, in Kornher-Stace’s novel of that name, survives by trying to get information from “ghosts.” When she succeeds, she is able to not only lay some of those ghosts to rest, but is armed with information that frees her from her former life. Mike, in Aric Davis’ A Good and Useful Hurt, gives himself a tattoo with ink that has ashes from the body of his murdered girlfriend and is then able to find her killer. Tara, who works for a necromantic firm in Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead, finds that bringing a god back to life means derailing her own career in order to see the life she has brought back to the god take hold in her city. Even the quest of Odessa, a court necromancer in the kingdom of Karthia in Marsh’s Reign of the Fallen, is to find out who has turned her undead king into a “Shade,” making him unfit to continue his rule. Occasionally the quest is continued by the dead person himself, as in Amy Plum’s Die for Me, where a hero come mysteriously and spontaneously back to life so he can continue his heroic acts, saving good people who would otherwise die before their time.

Sometimes, in 21st century fiction, resurrection goes right–or at least not as wrong as when a person tries it–because it is performed by a god. This happens in Gaiman’s 2001 novel American Gods, Hawkin’s 2015 novel The Library at Mount Char, and Drayden’s 2017 novel The Prey of Gods.

I think the culmination of the necromancy tropes in 21st-century fiction comes with novels in which the seeker for knowledge manages to contain dark knowledge or destroy dark magic. This happens in the comic YA novels by Lish McBride, Hold Me Closer, Necromancer and Necromancing the Stone. The hero, Sam, doesn’t even know he is a necromancer until he is visited by a scary-looking older guy who tells him that he is. When Sam confronts his mother, he finds out that she is a witch and was afraid of his powers when he was born, afraid enough to bind them. His quest is to decide how to act once his powers can no longer be hidden from the world by his mother’s protective spells. The main thing he does in the novel is loose the spirits that the older guy, the evil necromancer Douglas, had resurrected, so they can help him rid the world of Douglas. Between pop tunes used as chapter titles, references to pop culture, and a comic perspective on young adult life, this is a new treatment of the old tropes, showing that the modern way to dispel darkness is to laugh at it and try to fix what has been previously twisted by fear.

In the sequel, Necromancing the Stone, Sam and his supernatural teen friends learn how to incorporate their powers into everyday life. When his sister begs him to resurrect their dead father, Sam explains that “it doesn’t really seem right, calling him up for no reason. Kind of, I don’t know, disrespectful.” By the end, Sam gets a tattoo to remind himself of the distinction between good and evil use of his power. In this world where magic is real, the teenagers have to learn how to use it to produce good that can replace the evil of the past. Sam is not working against Nature, but trying to restore the balance of magic in his world.

The effort to contain dark knowledge also happens, in a more serious way, in Nick Harkaway’s latest novel Gnomon, a novel about the urge to resurrect a picture of the universe that includes a particular person—a longing so intense that the person who has been left alive will try to break the rules of the universe itself. Although the effect is metaphoric in the novel, the character with the most literal urge for resurrection is Athenais Karthogonensis, a 4th-century alchemist with a dead son. She often thinks about bringing things back from the dead, once even considering it to prevent the waste of a duck she had planned to cook, thinking she could “speak to the duck and make it fresh again, though always careful not to push too hard and bring it once again to life.” The alchemy of this novel, harkening back to Victor Frankenstein’s original area of study, is based on making the metaphor of resurrection literal, as “there’s a very real chance the basic unit of our universe is information. Meaning is as fundamental as matter.” What we think we know and want individually is just one piece in the larger picture of how we can function collectively, as a society.

All of these stories of “the modern Prometheus,” after Shelley’s, have increasingly contained a degree of postmodernist play on the horrors of alchemy or magic, which were originally thought to produce only “imperfect animation.” The creation of a simulacrum of a human has spawned more simulacra in a growing body of fictional treatments. Both the creator and the creature become chimera, composed of various parts from different films, drawings, songs, stories, and novels.

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