Archive for December, 2010

December 22, 2010

Gary Shteyngart. Super Sad True Love Story

I’m rarely as irritated by a book as I was by Shteyngart’s dystopia. I’m also rarely as respectful of one. When I reviewed this book for The Sunday Guardian I had to hold myself back. Because however fine a writer he is (and he is one) and however well-conceived his dystopia (and it mostly is, very) he’s still the sort of writer who needs you to know that he knows that he’s writing yet another love story about a middle-aged man and a beautiful young girl.

This doesn’t stop Super Sad True Love Story from occasionally being quite gorgeous, though.

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It is perhaps rather obvious that dystopic fiction should structure itself around the fears of its contemporary society. Orwell’s 1984 (the dystopia everyone has read), for example, deals with constant surveillance by an all-powerful state that has taken over even language.

One of 2010’s biggest theatrical releases was The Social Network, a film whose reception said a lot about the centrality of Facebook to our lives. In India, 2010 also saw the release of Dibakar Banerjee’s Love, Sex aur Dhokha, a film about social voyeurism and the media. In 2010 it’s not Big Brother who is watching you: it’s everyone.

This is certainly the case in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, a dystopian satire in a world where all information about a person is constantly available to those around him. People own apparats, devices to link them to social networks wherever they are. Everyone around you knows your financial status, personal history and “fuckability” rating. It is in this world that middle-aged, hopelessly unfashionable Lenny Abramov falls in love with the much-younger, beautiful Eunice Park. As their relationship progresses, so do larger world political events. Until America falls apart.

The novel uses various formats in order to tell this story, shifting from Lenny’s diary entries to Eunice’s emails and chat transcripts. Lenny’s keeping of a written, personal diary is, like his habit of reading physical copies of books, very unusual in a world where books may not be banned, but are unfashionable enough that most people believe they smell bad. Both Lenny and Eunice experience genuine difficulty in reading, and Lenny has had to re-train himself to write. Interestingly Shteyngart has said (in an interview with the Paris Review) that one of his reasons for choosing this particular narrative style, with the text broken up into short sections with different formats, was that he believed people nowadays find it hard to read a book cover to cover – that we’re no longer as equipped to read books as we once were. This will become the novel’s biggest flaw.

Lenny is an interesting narrator. His many flaws are visible throughout the text. This is the sort of man who uses the word “eponymous” a page into beginning his narrative, and a couple of pages later is gushing about “the Baroque architecture of twentysomething buttocks”. He is attracted to women with tragic pasts – particularly victims of child abuse.

His feelings for Eunice arise naturally out of the sort of person that Lenny is. Early in the book he describes her as a “nano-sized woman who had likely never known the tickle of her own pubic hair, who lacked both breast and scent”. He attempts to convince himself that “the woman I had fallen for is thoughtful and bright”, but it comes across merely as an attempt to convince himself of his own lack of shallowness. He claims that “for me to fall in love with Eunice Park just as the world fell apart would be a tragedy beyond the Greeks”. When the tragedy comes, however, it is not the loss of this relationship that is affecting but the loss of many others.

Lenny’s relationship with his friends, for example. One of the few positives that Shteyngart’s dystopia allows for is that this “permissive” age allows for more physical closeness among men who “grew up with a fairly tense idea of male friendship”. With the rest of the world constantly tuning in honest conversation becomes difficult, but there’s never any doubt that there’s love there.

Eunice’s emails to her family and her friend “Grillbitch” (real name Jenny Kang) are equally moving. Perhaps because she’s younger and better able to communicate with technology, Eunice never seems to feel, as Lenny does, that the modern world makes it harder to communicate with her friends and there’s more honesty in her emails and chat transcripts than there ever is in Lenny’s private diary. Eunice grows and changes over the duration of the novel, and is in the end a far more sympathetic character.

Then there’s Lenny’s love of America. If this novel’s title were intended to refer to its narrator’s relationship with his country it would be quite understandable. Lenny commits himself to loving his country even as it collapses around him, and the sense of what has been, or is about to be, lost pervades the novel.

Every returning New Yorker asks the question: Is this still my city?
I have a ready answer, cloaked in obstinate despair: It is.
And if it’s not, I will love it all the more. I will love it to the point where it becomes mine again.

At the end of the novel, however, Shteyngart disappoints. He provides a frame narrative, and in it attempts to forestall a number of criticisms that might be made about the novel. That it is too much in the style of “the final generation of American “literary” writers”. That Eunice’s entries are preferable to “Lenny’s relentless navel-gazing”. It’s the sort of thing that might be intended to intimidate the reader into not making those criticisms herself – yet Shteyngart’s knowledge that these potential criticisms exist does not make them less true.

And this is ultimately my problem with Super Sad True Love Story. It is beautiful, it is smart, it is incredibly moving, but ultimately it does not trust its readers to read it. Shteyngart will cut the crusts and literally break his book into bite-sized pieces for his readers, and make for himself the criticisms they might have made. One of his fictional reviewers describes Lenny’s book as a “tribute to literature as it once was”. Super Sad True Love Story is the opposite; it’s a book for readers who are already in the dystopia that Shteyngart describes.

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Here are a couple of other reviews: Sasha Nova at BSC, Patrick Hudson at The Zone, Deepanjana Pal at Mumbai Boss.

December 9, 2010

More on women and SF: I ramble about my own list for a bit

I mentioned Torque Control’s current women and sf focus in this post a few days ago. The results are in and Niall has been posting short reviews of the books in the poll’s top ten. So I wanted to talk a little about my own list.

First, there’s the question of defining what science fiction is. I don’t think any of the books on my list would qualify as “typical” sf. Possible reasons for this: it’s a result of my not reading very much sf; it’s because not enough women write sf in the first place and I therefore had to really stretch for names; a “best of” list is not likely to contain much that is typical in the first place, since these are supposed to be the books that really stand out. I suspect my list is a result of all three.
In general I think rigid genre boundaries are a bit silly- genre classification is a tool to help us think about books, and the moment it becomes cumbersome you discard it. But in a situation like this I think it’s also important to be careful of how far one stretches the definition of a genre. As Jo Walton points out here, there are a lot more famous female authors writing fantasy than sf, and part of the point of this month is to examine that fact – redefining fantasy books as sf isn’t going to help anyone.
I really enjoyed this post by Shana Worthen on the subject of how to classify LeGuin’s Lavinia. To my shame I still haven’t read the book despite having bought it at the beginning of the year. I suspect the only sort of science fiction I’m really interested in is social-science fiction (does that exist as a term)? Worthen’s post would apply perfectly to something like Mary Gentle’s Ash, which would certainly have been on my list if it had only been published a year or so later. It’s probably why things like dystopias and alternate histories also figure in my head as “sf”.
People/books that aren’t on my list:
I would have loved to have Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell on the list if I could even vaguely justify it to myself as science fiction. I could not.
Aadisht asked in the comments of my last post on this subject whether Gail Carriger was on it. Much as I love the Parasol Protectorate books, she is not. I definitely think her books can qualify as sf, but I’m still waiting for her to write a book that absolutely blows my mind. She’s created a setting that makes this possible, certainly, and it’s bound to happen eventually.
Justina Robson and Tricia Sullivan are names that pop up on almost every other list of this sort that I’ve read, but I’ve never read anything by either author. Neither of them is to be seen in most Indian bookshops, but I know my library has some of Robson’s work and I must get down to reading it.
Now the list:
Scarlett Thomas – PopCo
Shelley Jackson – Half Life
Gwyneth Jones – Bold as Love
Kit Whitfield – In Great Waters
K.J Bishop – The Etched City
Steph Swainston – The Year of Our War
PopCo was a gift from a friend (who posts here) a few years ago. It is the only thing by Scarlet Thomas I’ve read so far, so for all I know her more recent books are better. But PopCo is intelligent and ruthless and fully deserves its place here.
Half Life is something I read a couple of years ago when I went through a stack of Tiptree award winning books in a month – triggered by The Knife of Never Letting Go being a joint winner (with Nisi Shawl’s Filter House). Jackson’s book is rich and playful and complicated and headache-causing. If I hadn’t enjoyed it so much I might think it was too clever for its own good. But I did and it wasn’t and that’s that.
Earlier this year I read Gwyneth Jones’ book of essays and criticism, Imagination/Space. I thoroughly enjoyed it and suspect I prefer Jones’ nonfiction to her fiction. Which makes it all the more impressive that she has multiple entries in the poll’s top ten. Bold as Love is a great place to start reading her work; in addition to being a very strong book itself, it’s the start of a good series. I just discovered that the first few books are actually available for free download on the Bold as Love website.
I spent a while backandforthing over including Whitfield’s book in this list. Eventually I sent it off without her, but then I read this post. I’m still not entirely convinced, but if there’s any chance of having In Great Waters on this list I want to take it. I ordered it this summer after reading some very enthusiastic reviews and was thrilled by it. It maintains its strangeness throughout, it’s powerful and uncomfortable, and really good.
A friend has been telling me for a couple of years that I must read K.J Bishop’s The Etched City but I only took his advice very recently. Apparently he was right. The Etched City starts off like a typical fantasy novel, and then something happens and it all turns inside out and gets very good indeed.
Swainston’s books are another series that look like a typical fantasy at first glance. But it’s set within an interesting multiverse, and as the series progresses (The Year of Our War is the first of the books) this becomes more and more important. In addition, Swainston’s a very good writer.
And that is where my list ends.
December 6, 2010

Starter for Ten: In which I discover the perfect quizmaster

On Saturday I read David Nicholls’ comic novel, Starter for Ten. It’s set in the 80s, and is about Brian, a young man who is earnest, lower middle class and a University Challenge fan. He gets into university (Englit) and makes it onto the University Challenge team. He also falls rather stupidly in love.

Nicholls is capable of being really funny. This, a few pages into the novel, was one of the passages that had me giggling and made me want to continue with it:
I think it’s fair to say that I’ve never been a slave to the fickle vagaries of fashion. It’s not that I’m anti-fashion, it’s just that of all the major youth movements I’ve lived through so far, none have really fitted. At the end of the day, the harsh reality is that if you’re a fan of Kate Bush, Charles Dickens, Scrabble, David Attenborough and University Challenge, then there’s not much out there for you in terms of a youth movement.

A few pages later a character is described as “carbuncular”. I was sold.
However, I think I’m just not cut out for comic novels where the protagonist (particularly a first-person protagonist)’s cluelessness is the butt of most of the humour. This was my major problem with Sidin Vadukut’s Dork, when I read it earlier this year. As with Robin Verghese, I spent most of the novel being irritated by Brian’s various idiocies. Even when he is being treated horribly by the woman he is supposedly in love with I’m hard pressed to sympathise – serves him right for being shallow and uninteresting. It’s a pity; as I said above, Nicholls is incredibly funny.
My other problem with the book is that there is not enough University Challenge in it. Quiz shows in general are things that make me happy, but UC is just special. The BBC does not broadcast it in India and this is something that makes me miserable on a regular basis. (I’ve tried asking friends in the UK to record each season for me. They refused to believe I meant it.) I could have dispensed with a good portion of the actual plot of the book if it were replaced with people answering questions.
Starter for Ten was made into a movie, Starter for 10, a few years ago. I have never seen this movie. But it has Rebecca Hall in it (and also Benedict Cumberbatch from Sherlock; this will become important) and is therefore presumably worth my time.
Another movie that involves education and a quiz show is St. Trinian’s. I’m not entirely sure how to excuse my love for this film – I’m inclined to think that anything that brings together Ronald Searle, delinquent schoolgirls, Stephen Fry, and Rupert Everett in drag cannot be a bad thing. I own all the older St Trinian’s films and they are a constant source of joy to me.
In St. Trinian’s a team of schoolgirls competes in a quiz show called School Challenge so that they can get into the National Gallery for nefarious purposes. Stephen Fry is the quizmaster of School Challenge, and he is excellent. Fry does, of course, have a long history with the quiz show.
Fry is soon to appear in the role of Mycroft Holmes in the sequel to last year’s Sherlock Holmes.
In Starter for 10 the quizmaster (Bamber Gascoigne) is played by Mark Gatiss. Gatiss plays Mycroft in the BBC Sherlock (the Cumberbatch version).
I’m not sure that this says anything profound about the character or about quizmasters in general – unless it’s that the sort of actors who look like they could play men who like a sedentary lifestyle and a lot of information also look like they could play men who like knowing things (and often also like a sedentary lifestyle). But it’s a nice little coincidence. It’s obvious that Mycroft Holmes would be the perfect TV quizmaster – if he could bestir himself to show up at the studio.
December 6, 2010

Lauren Beukes, Zoo City

I wrote a short review of Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City for Saturday’s Indian Express. It’s a fantastic book, and one that’s quite likely to be seen as a classic in the near future. I’d like to see more set in this universe (not a sequel – I think Zinzi’s story ends at the right place) because there’s a lot in it to play with. My IE piece focused on the genre elements of the book but there’s quite as much to be said about the familiars, the ways in which the familiars are discussed (the reason I can read the book as science fiction) and the way Beukes weaves other forms of writing into the text.

I think (and I’ve been trying to work this out since I wrote the review) that the one thing that stops the book from entirely blowing my mind is that it didn’t feel as if there was enough. I thought the causes of animalling and the Undertow deserved more exploration; not necessarily explanation, since as I’ve said in the review the not-knowing works rather well. Sometimes it was as if this potentially really great concept was warring for pagespace with a really tight, strongly plotted story. The story won, and while this wasn’t necessarily a bad choice, ideally the choice wouldn’t have had to be made. Judging by many of the reviews I’ve read I suspect that I’m alone in this viewpoint though.
Either way, it’s a smart, solid, good book. An edited version of my piece is below:

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Lauren Beukes is a South African journalist and writer. Her first book, 2008’s dystopia, Moxyland, was well-received. Zoo City, her second novel, is a fantasy crime thriller set in the city of Johannesburg.

Zinzi December is a former journalist. After the death of her brother (for which she is in some way responsible) and a spell in prison she moves into Zoo City, a ghetto in Johannesburg inhabited by other former criminals. Here she begins a new life and ekes out a living writing emails for 419 scams and helping people to find missing objects, which are all too frequently in the city’s sewers. The one thing she refuses to do? Find missing persons. Then a client dies and Zinzi is unfortunately on the spot. She’s persuaded by a pair of thoroughly unpleasant characters to take on the case of a missing teenage popstar, and from there on it all goes to hell. Thus far we have a reasonably typical (and rather good) noir crime novel.

Except that Zinzi carries a sloth with her everywhere she goes; her lover has a mongoose and her new employers are accompanied by a poodle and a bird of prey. In this universe, somewhere around the mid-90s certain people began to be accompanied everywhere by animal familiars. This “Acquired Aposymbiotic Familiarism” or “animalling” seems to happen to individuals who have killed someone, and though many theories are discussed in the book no one seems to know why it happens. The animalled are ostracized within their society and targeted by the police; the very presence of the animals confirming that they are guilty of something. Nor can you get rid of your animal by killing it – those whose animals die become victims of something called the Undertow (left undefined and all the scarier for it).
So there are elements of urban fantasy. And possibly science fiction as well; though very little is known about aposymbiotic familiarism, it is generally discussed with the assumption that there is a rational-scientific explanation for it. Beukes herself has suggested “muti noir” as an appropriate genre name, but then that might just relegate it to a genre of one.
Whatever it is, though, Zoo City is impressive. The text is interspersed with different sorts of writing – exerpts from music magazines, medical journals, gossip blogs, internet spam and even something that looks like an imdb page. Zinzi, with her tragic past, her (frequently amoral) survival instinct and a job that skirts quite close to “detective” makes the ideal noir protagonist.

As an outsider, it’s tempting to read almost everything that comes out of South Africa as being in some way about apartheid. In the case of 2008’s District 9, this was certainly justified, though it did somewhat draw attention away from the sfnal aspects of the film. In Zoo City the parallels are less obvious, but they are very present. A number of places in the city have a “policy” against allowing the animalled in. Zinzi and those like her are subject to greater scrutiny by the law and are restricted to living in the only area in the city that will have them.

Wider African politics are also woven into the plot, particularly in the form of Benoît, Zinzi’s lover and a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC. Zinzi herself impersonates an impoverished girl from the DRC (much to Benoît’s disgust) in the service of one of her 419 scams.

Then there are the animals. Fans of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series will be familiar with “daemons”, animals that exist as a sort of external manifestation of the human soul. Beukes namechecks Pullman within the text with a web page that references “Steering by the Golden Compass: Pullman’s fantasy in the context of the ontological shift (2005)”. Beukes’ familiars are different from Pullman’s daemons, particularly because they exist only for a marginalised few. But this makes the relationship between human and animal far more interesting – simultaneously resentful and (reluctantly) affectionate.

If Zoo City has a particular flaw it’s that its characters are not very likeable. Perhaps this is for the best, considering the number of awful things that seem to happen to them. Despite this Beukes’ book is intelligent, gripping and relentless, and I look forward to seeing what she does next.

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I’m a bit surprised that I’ve had cause to reference District 9 (a film about which I felt rather ambivalent) in two reviews in a row now.
December 5, 2010

Women writing SF

I’d meant to post this ages ago (and thought I had, but since I cannot find it anywhere I must have been wrong) but Niall Harrison is asking people to email him their lists of the best works of SF by women in the last ten years. I’m currently agonising over my own list, but I hope more people will send in theirs. Entries to be in before midnight (British time, I assume) tonight. Please send in suggestions – it’s a good thing that Niall is doing, and I look forward with interest to the results.

I will post my own (pathetically short) list* when I am satisfied with it.
*I suspect my problem is as much a result of not reading enough SF as it is of not reading enough books by women.