Jan. 19th, 2017

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Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country is an episodic novel centred on the experiences, both mundane and supernatural, of a black family - Atticus Turner, his father Montrose Turner and his uncle George Berry - and their immediate circle of friends in mid-50s America. The family is based in Chicago, where George publishes The Safe Negro Traveling Guide, a fictional version of the historical Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual publication that listed businesses that served black travellers - gas stations, restaurants, hotels, private homes that rented rooms.

The novel begins with Atticus, a veteran of the recently concluded Korean War, driving north from Florida to Chicago in response to a strange letter from his estranged father Montrose. While the letter draws them into true Lovecraft country and a dangerous confrontation with supernatural powers, Atticus, Montrose, George and family friend Letitia handle these terrors with aplomb. What poses the greatest risk to them is the racism they encounter wherever they travel - from violent police and sundown counties to garages that refuse to even sell a new tire to a black man stranded on the road.

The Lovecraftian connection is firmly established in this first episode, as Atticus, George and Letitia trace the missing Montrose to a mysterious New England town called Ardham, where the woods are full of shadowy, threatening creatures and the town itself is a feudal fiefdom dominated by the scions of the powerful - and white - Braithwaite family, hereditary leaders of a cult of sorcerers. The connections between the Braithwaites and the Turners, central to this episode, surface again in the later stories.

The further adventures of Atticus and his family and friends in Lovecraft Country are varied, but as in the first narrative, the danger posed by the supernatural and horror elements they encounter pales in comparison to the repeated aggressions perpetrated by the white people around them.

Reading this as a white person, I was deeply struck by how fully Ruff portrays what I imagine the experience of being black in a world that oozes white supremacy and hatred of difference from every pore. From Letitia's experience in 'pioneering' - being the first black person to buy property in a white part of town - to Montrose's memories as a child survivor of the Tulsa riot, the litany of offenses underscores the message of Lovecraft Country, that the greatest horror is not the imaginary creatures that can spring from the mind of an author such as Lovecraft, but the fear and hatred that grows in the hearts of white America, a fear and hatred that Lovecraft also stands as an exemplar of.

Ruff makes the white reader think about the history of race-based contempt, humiliation and violence perpetrated on blacks in America. One chilling moment among many comes during the description of an ancestor's Book of Days - a ledger drawn up after the Civil War and freedom of what her firmer owner owed her. In addition to the cost of her stolen labour, Adah's ledger includes financial penalties assessed for violence suffered.

"For the penalties, Adah consulted her Bible. She charged twenty-seven dollars and twenty-six cents for each whipping, 27:26 being the verse in Matthew’s Gospel where the Savior was flogged. Her price for the most common of the “other” insults, twenty-two dollars and a quarter, was based in Deuteronomy."

I stopped reading to check the verse, knowing ahead of time what I'd find, hoping against hope to be wrong - but of course I wasn't.

As a white reader viewing black experiences through the imagination of a white author, I looked for reviews by black critics, to read what those who knew though lived experience what Ruff, and I, know only through exercise of imagination and empathy. Those I found were on the whole highly positive about the novel, including its portrayal of black experience in a racist society. [1]

I've read several of Ruff's books, and I think this is the best yet among those I've read. It's powerful, and it's compelling reading, and it's a damned good story.


[1] Reviews of Lovecraft Country
Aaron Coats, Chicago Review of Books
https://chireviewofbooks.com/2016/02/11/lovecraft-country-unearths-monsters-both-real-and-imagined/

Alex Brown, Tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2016/02/16/book-reviews-lovecraft-country-by-matt-ruff/

Edward Austin Hall, Seattle Review of Books
http://www.seattlereviewofbooks.com/reviews/caught-after-dark-in-lovecraft-country/

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Bao Shu's novella Everybody Loves Charles, translated by Ken Liu, is an exploration of identity, celebrity and corporate greed and power. Bao uses the by-now familiar trope of being "wired" into the feeling and sensations of a celebrity to present a world in which millions of people would rather spend hours of every day being someone else - someone glamorous, who does exciting things and has sex with the 'beautiful people' - rather that live their own lives.

Charles Mann is the world's most chosen 'livecaster' - a daring race pilot who has love affairs with the world's most famous women and who, unlike many other celebrities, is online for his subscribers 24 hour a day. He thrives on the knowledge that millions love him so much they want to know his every feeling and sensation, to see the world through his eyes. Takume Naoto is one of his subscribers, a programmer who works just enough to support a spartan life, and spends all of his remaining time vicariously experiencing Charles' life.

When Charles meets a woman who is outside of his world of fame and constant livecasting, he is persuaded by her to limit his livecasting - she refuses to allow his time with her to be a part of the experiences of anyone who cares to subscribe to Charles' livecasts. But when he contemplates stopping his casts altogether, he discovers the world of corporate brandmaking that lies behind the livecasts.

An ultimately pessimistic, even dystopic view of a culture where personal identity and experience are felt to be inadequate beside the hyped-up lives of the rich and famous, and where even the cults of celebrity are ultimately nothing more than ways to make profits, Everyone Loves Charles delivers a serious critique of the virtual and vicarious lives we are increasing drawn to.

Bao Shu's novella can be found online at Clarkesworld. http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/bao_01_16/

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