"The intent of the Goddess is neither known nor knowable. She makes us dance, male and female, in ever converging gyres that bring us ultimately each to our own destiny, and that destiny is always the same and never escapable. She does not tell us why."
"'Woe!' he cried. 'Alas for those who seek after Truth, for such is the Goddess's most hoarded treasure. Ah, she is cruel and unfathomable, and bitter, bitter is her vengeance.'"
This one's for ThyGoddess. She wasn't originally chalked up to go first, but she did insist, and some, um, beings you don't want to disappoint. (Plus, I feel like I owe her one.)
If you think about it, the old tales were always scary. They were, if not ostensibly, always morality fables, trying to pin the caprice of nature to a human ethical map. If the fairy stories lost their puissance over the last couple hundred years, it's because people found modern things to fear, things of their humanity's own making. At its core, Swanwick's novel uses the lessons and characters of the old tales to capture the horrors of a contemporary setting, and finds that the fit is, um, fantastic. I love this book.
And what god (or goddess) isn't an exaggeration of human qualities? Whether we're talking mercy (the antithesis of nature) or vital randomness (the essence of it), we've painted our pantheon with the mirrors close by, anthropomorphizing the cold universe with all of our human spite and wonder. In the context of the story, it's an open question who painted the spiral universe of The Iron Dragon's Daughter. The novel concerns the early life of Jane, a human girl, trapped in a fey world. She starts off indentured to a factory that would do Dickens proud, filled with sprites and trolls and elves in the roles of workers, supervisors, and plant engineers. It is, of course, a formative story, and as Jane escapes from one setting to the next (high school, college, high society, false hierarchies all) the evil and the drama and the love is captured in startling hyperbole. I've said it before, if you're going to use a supernatural setting, everything is what you do with it. Swanwick uses the hyper-human personae of the supernatural for satire. I mean, if you're a certain sort of reader you've seen factory trolls and the like a hundred times, but in the real world, the scarier goblins are in the bureaucracy, and some of the Swanwick's vignettes with these creatures are classic (failed engineers mutilated for shame, a bibliophile bookseller who can't part with his stock, an ancient professor decanted once a year for a lecture). I can't say that Swanwick's prose is across-the-board fabulous, but when he gets rolling with his synthesis of fantastic and mundane language, he is outstanding. I especially loved the chemistry.
I'm impressed with the structure of this story too. As it develops, it grows a feeling that the world's coming apart at the seams, even while the story retains an overall coherence. Jane graduates from one society to another, escapes each really, and in each setting, the stakes get higher, ultimately threatening the consensus reality itself. She goes through several iterations of a life's drama (without losing the overall dramatic arc), and the drama is exaggerated to frightening proportions. She's a heroine (a self-made chemist!) with tragic flaws (a thief, a floozy). The situations are at times shocking--sexual, violent--but I found myself biting my lip as Jane struggles to find her destiny each time, all the while losing to a growing and nearly unavoidable temptation. She breaks through each wall, bodies (literally) in her wake, to find herself living the same story in a new setting. It would spoil the book, perhaps, to reveal what the established reality is (or isn't), but even the ending is not conclusive.
The Goddess of this book is something like a prime mover or a demiurge, and favors the human girl stuck in fairy world. The final loop takes us through a double thick layer of metaphors for hope and fatalism--does the universe give a shit or not?--and it's favorite source of quotes for me. Where has Jane been? Is she really free? What's it all mean for any of us? Read it. I've seen this done before, but rarely this well.
Saturday, May 12, 2007