Still not ready to quit Twitter, where I follow a bunch of astronauts and space probes, plus a smattering of science communicators.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke 📚

This novel is both much lighter than the author’s earlier Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell while at the same time more profound. Both stories are marked departures from the conventions of the fantasy genre, but Piranesi takes us even further afield, to the point that it circles back to the roots of fantastic literature.

The cast of characters is limited, and initially there is only the narrator recording events in his journal. As the story progresses we are introduced to only a few more, allowing each new entrance to be a major event in the plot. But the most important element is the stage on which these players move, a world which consists of a gigantic building of unknown extent, subject to tides in its lower chambers and the vagaries of sun and cloud in its upper levels, inhabited only by the narrator and an uncounted number of rooms, stairs, doorways, birds, and statues. It calls to mind the crumbling sprawl of Gormenghast but is clearly not intended for human habitation; life for the narrator is challenging, bringing to mind Robinson Crusoe cast ashore on a desert island. The mystery of the “House” is the central theme of the book, and the most obvious clues are the numerous marble statues which are scattered in each room, each representing a person or animal persona with no context, random archetypes extracted from all of our world’s stories.

The novel itself is a series of revelations, as the narrator encounters the other characters and slowly learns the meaning and origin of the world he inhabits and his own role within that story, each meeting leading him back to earlier volumes of his journal which contain the keys to the mystery. There are echoes here of Lovecraft’s dreamworld (without those tedious elder gods); and of Borges’s infinite library (with statues in place of books). There is no great reveal at the end, but the story slowly builds to the narrator’s own acceptance of who he is and his place in his own narrative.



Unity by Elly Bangs 📚

As I have noted several times that current circumstances make it difficult for me to sit down and read a novel, and I was only able to make my way through this one due to our recent travel days, the first in a very long time. This was a good book for the trip, in that it is well written, interleaving the stories of several engaging characters facing personal and global crises; but at the same time it was challenging to follow the conceptual threads, which pass through increasingly abstract layers of identity to ask fundamental questions about what it means to be human.

The story begins in a future world in convulsion due to catastrophic climate change, with nuclear, biological, and nanotech warfare threatening the end of humanity. The cast of characters seem to be typical post-apocolyptic tropes, but it is soon revealed that some of them are post-human gestalts created using the titular Unity technology. Amid the background of escape and conflict the natures of these post-humans are gradually revealed; it’s not a single facet, but several different paths rooted in earlier decisions (shown in flashbacks) and reflecting the various aspirations and morality of the characters in question.

With such transformative technology followed to its logical conclusion it would be hard to escape a deus ex machina ending, and Unity does not escape this fate; but the characters themselves reach satisfying resolutions of their own, despite disasters both global and personal.