October 12, 2014

Courtney Milan, Talk Sweetly To Me

Because why not write the same piece over two weeks and have one half be about narrative poetry and the other be about romance?

Here is that second part; it’s from last weekend’s column and much of what’s in it will be familiar to anyone who has read this earlier piece on Milan’s series and this one on historical romance in general.

 

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Last week in this column I wrote about Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe, and the ways in which it can be useful to challenge our received understanding of history through competing narratives that focus on the things that those better known accounts tend to gloss over. Evaristo’s novel told (in verse) the story of a young black woman, a member of a minority community in the London of Roman Britain. This week I read a very different piece of historical fiction about another young black woman in London, this time in 1882.

I’ve said in the past that I do not often like politics to be explicitly raised in the historical romances I read. Such books tend to focus on aristocrats, and it’s hard to sympathise with them when reminded of things like slavery and oppressive class and gender constructs, especially when the author is pleading with us to appreciate these characters merely for being slightly less awful than everyone else. If I want to read about handsome dukes in period costume, I need to pretend they exist in a magical universe that does not share a history with our own.

Courtney Milan is one of my exceptions to this rule. Her Brothers Sinister series, concluded recently with the novella Talk Sweetly To Me, is set in a 19th century England full of political agitations, strikes, suffragettes. It’s also populated by, among others, clever women who work, queer people, non-white characters, and people with disabilities. Talk Sweetly To Me has for its protagonist a mathematical genius who happens to be a black woman.

The general narrative of the erasure of non-white people from European history tends to insist that such people simply weren’t there to be represented. It’s harder to make this claim about women, but we’re often told that historical gender roles were so rigid that any narrative of a woman doing something spectacular is simply ahistorical (as opposed to unlikely, which tends to be a feature of stories about heroes). An important feature of Milan’s books are their afterwords which, by providing more historical context and pointing to some of the sources she drew upon for research, validate these characters’ and these stories’ right to exist. There’s data on the presence of black doctors in London, as there is on the erasure of women’s work from the history of science. She’s least successful when she puts this justification of these characters’ presence into the text itself (a Bengali character in the book The Heiress Effect is constantly explaining himself), but it’s easy to forgive this.

Which isn’t to say that the world of the books is in any way the historical truth, whatever that may mean. Milan’s occasional deviations from historical records are flagged up when they occur, and some of them are significant enough to turn the whole into alternate history. What is not flagged up but is no less important is the way in which these books joyously take part in the wish-fulfilment that is a part of every hero story: of course we know that in most cases the social forces against them would break these characters, but sometimes we need stories of success, or simply happiness. Talk Sweetly To Me is lighter on both politics and drama than most of the full-length novels, and is certainly not the best of the series, but there’s something wonderful in reading a romance that we expect to be difficult (well-educated and tenuously-socially-accepted Irish writer of low birth falls in love with genius black female mathematician?), and to have it be joyous and pun-filled instead.

In her afterword Milan points out, pointedly, that while her protagonist Rose’s community was certainly a very small minority, there were “at least as many black doctors as there were dukes”. Milan is writing in a genre where dukes are plentiful (they even show up in her other works); to invoke them here is a reminder that we choose which stories to tell, which stories we allow to frame our understanding of the past.

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October 7, 2014

Bernardine Evaristo, The Emperor’s Babe

From last weekend’s columnthing.

 

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Marriage is hell for Zuleika, sold off far too young to be the bride of a rich man. The daughter of immigrant shopkeepers in London, Zuleika has spent her early life wandering freely around the cosmopolitan city with her best friend Alba. All that is changed when she is eleven, when the wealthy Felix comes into her life offering her father business deals; her father, still not fluent in the language, more interested in his son than his daughter, needing the financial benefits of an alliance with Felix, accepts the offer. Zuleika finds herself trapped in his house, in a loveless marriage and desperately unhappy except when she can escape to spend time with her two close friends; the cynical housewife Alba and the more romantic transwoman Venus. And then she falls in love, and this changes everything.

Two things are not particularly evident from this summary. The first is that Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe is a novel told entirely in verse. The second is that it is set in the London (Londinium) of around 200 CE.

In her acknowledgements Evaristo mentions Peter Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, from which she first realised that people of African descent had been living in Britain at least since the Roman occupation. Narratives of history that are presented to us even today (Fryer’s book was published in 1984, Evaristo’s in 2001) tend to elide the ways in which people have always travelled, mingled, shared culture, crossed supposedly rigid boundaries. Fiction that includes characters who do this may be panned for being unrealistic. Authors of fantasy novels based on medieval Europe will give interviews explaining that their lack of non-white characters merely reflects the world as it was at the time. Attempts to redress these assumptions aren’t always taken well; witness the recent hostility directed at the blog Medieval POC (medievalpoc.tumblr.com) merely for providing evidence that Europe before the Enlightenment was more culturally diverse than people might believe.empbabe

Evaristo’s book opens with an epigraph from Oscar Wilde—“The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it”. To me it seems clear that this is a conscious writing back, wielding historical fact (the book was written when the author was writer in residence at the Museum of London) to create a world in which the very scope of the Roman Empire means that people from all over the world are present in Londinium.

And this is best done through language. Evaristo combines Latinised words and phrases with colloquialisms and the rhythms of contemporary speech to create something joyous and alive. Often it’s seamless, as when Zuleika rants about “the city of Roma which everyone/ went on about as if it were so bloody mirabilis”. At other points it draws attention to itself: Zuleika’s father calls Felix “very benignus gentleman, sir […] a boost to oeconomia most welcome, sir”. No opportunity to (cod-) Latinise is missed (“futuo-off, you little runt”) and there’s no reason why it should be. Sometimes it’s beautiful. “And then it rained, it rained et pluviam,/ et pluviam et plurimam pluviam”.

The language adds to the sense of historical and contemporary London as being the same space, inhabited by the same sorts of people and concerns, so that Alba’s thinness can be due to either anorexia or worms, and characters can slip seamlessly into cockney rhyming slang. This sense isn’t necessarily historically accurate either (cities do not transcend time) but it’s a necessary corrective to the dominant narrative, as well as making for gorgeous prose.

With all this challenging of received history, it’s easy to overlook that there’s a domestic story of marriage and love and heartbreak in the middle of all of this. We’re never allowed to, with Zuleika, entirely romanticise her relationship with the Emperor. We know that this is going to end painfully; with her friends, we see most of the signs before she does. It doesn’t matter though because what matters is what love does to Zuleika, setting her free as a poet and a person, even as that person edges closer and closer to death. Her lover may not see her (“Somewhere over my left shoulder,/ had appeared an audience. All the men/ in my life did this, as if their words/ were too important for my ears alone.”) but to the reader he only counts as a necessary step to Zuleika’s love poetry anyway.

 

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October 6, 2014

September Reading

At least September was a better month for reading than August.

 

Nitasha Kaul, Residue: Review forthcoming, but I really did not think much of this.

Diana Wynne Jones, Charmed Life, The Lives of Christopher Chant, Conrad’s Fate, The Pinhoe Egg, Mixed Magics, The Magicians of Caprona, Witch Week: I helped organise, then attended and presented a paper at, a conference on Diana Wynne Jones. It was exhausting and I rather assumed I’d be quite happy not to think about DWJ for a good few months after. Naturally, in the week or so following, I reread all the Chrestomanci books, and out of order. All still great, but now I’m having all these thoughts about The Pinhoe Egg and it turns out I could probably think about DWJ forever.

Ava Chin, Eating Wildly: Review here. I enjoyed this.

Jared Shurin (ed), Irregularity: Review forthcoming. Mixed feelings, but there’s that Adam Roberts story and it is perfect, and there are E.J. Swift and James Smythe being pretty good at this writing thing too.

Susan Scarlett, Peter and Paul: I’m still failing to work out what this reminded me of. Weirdly moralistic, considering that Scarlett was a pseudonym of Noel Streatfeild. But I suppose that’s genre appropriate, and I did genuinely enjoy it.

E. Nesbit, The Story of The Treasure-Seekers, The Wouldbegoods: Always charmed by these, love Nesbit forever, etc. Perhaps I can make time to reread the Psammead books soon as well.

Georgette Heyer, These Old Shades, Devil’s Cub, Sylvester, Pistols for Two, The Foundling, The Corinthian, The Nonesuch, The Talisman Ring: I was exhausted and sick and retreated into Heyer. Where is the Talisman Ring caper movie we deserve?

Bernardine Evaristo, The Emperor’s Babe: I’ll have a piece on this on the blog in a day or so. The book is excellent, obviously.

Sophie Hannah, The Monogram Murders: This seems to have got some good reviews, which suggests that I am failing at reading it because I thought it was dreadful; inconsistent in voice, weak of plot, and generally poor on multiple levels.

Courtney Milan, Talk Sweetly To Me: I’ll have a piece on this on the blog soon also. It is not as perfect a thing as The Suffragette Scandal (but what could be?) but I enjoyed it anyway.

Deirdre Sullivan, Prim Improper: I bought this because the author is a) funny on twitter and b) compared to Anna Carey (who is great), and read it on a sick day and it was exactly what I needed. Just very kind and funny about adolescence and other people and rats and death.

 

September 24, 2014

Ava Chin, Eating Wildly

This past weekend’s column. I enjoyed the book, but also look how pretty the cover is.

 

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Late in Ava Chin’s Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal, a radio producer asks the author why she forages. Momentarily hesitant, she explains that foraging reminds her “that the world is a generous place […] I know that plants will always sprout in the spring, become lush in the summer, and then grow dormant in the winter. And the following year, it’ll happen all over again.”

Chin’s book, in large part a forager’s handbook, does make the world seem a particularly generous place. Parks in New York yield fruit and herbs and a huge variety of mushrooms; Eating-Wildly-covereven in the more populated parts of the city it is possible to find unknown treasures. Even in the winter nature provides; dandelions sprout serendipitously, or a little effort reveals a spread of field garlic. Chin is the author of a blog on urban foraging for the New York Times and she is at her best when she portrays the world as busting with life, all interconnected, and ready to share that bounty with those who care to look. Organised loosely around the seasons, each chapter is dedicated to some new (or rediscovered) food that Chin finds in the course of her journey. Many chapters end with simple recipes using the food stuff in question, while others explain a technique, like the drying of mugwort leaves or how to create a spore print to identify a mushroom. With an index, a bibliography and a short list of other resources, Eating Wildly is very much a book about food, about the process of finding it and thinking about it and consuming it.

But it is also a memoir. This is not unusual for a book about food; food and the ways in which we think about it tend to be deeply emotive. Over the course of the book we see Chin work out her complicated and loving relationship with her grandmother, the end of one long-term relationship and various attempts to begin another, her difficulty in coming to terms with the father who abandoned her, and most of all her relationship with her mother. The narrative skips back and forward in time, jumping from memory to memory, many of which are food-centred. Those set during the author’s childhood are particularly well done—Chin doesn’t simplify, or downplay the hurt that people who love one another are capable of inflicting upon each other.

It is in its contemporary storyline that Eating Wildly stumbles. One danger of writing a personal memoir intertwined with a foraging diary is that in trying to turn these two strands into a unified whole the things that are strongest about them may be rendered secondary to the larger narrative. There are moments when the story of Chin’s foraging experiences and that of her emotional journey come together in genuinely moving ways—as it does when, leaving the hospital where her grandmother has died she comes across the mulberry tree for which she’s been hunting across the city. But often the book’s structure is a little too obvious; it’s all too clear what this chapter’s big revelatory moment will be, and the text is eager to make the connection between what Ava learns in one sphere and how the resulting lesson might be applied to the other—as when an encounter with a hive of bees reminds her that there can only be one “Queen” in her partner’s life. The neatness of this intertwining makes it all a little too pat, as if Chin’s emotional life could be fixed entirely by a year’s experiences. Some of the rawness that made the earlier sections work is lost.

At its best, Eating Wildly is moving as a memoir and fascinating as a food book. In its weaker moments it provokes some rolling of the eyes. And the wild mushroom, fig and goat cheese tart looks amazing.

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September 23, 2014

Changes, Announcements

Or just one change and one announcement really, and by now most of those who are interested in/affected by it have probably seen it.

I’ve spoken here before about how important Strange Horizons has been to me as a fan, for the things it publishes as well as for providing me with a community of readers that feels more like home than anything else I’ve found in SF fandom. A huge part of that has been due to the work of the reviews editors – (in the time I’ve been reading the magazine) Niall Harrison, then Abigail Nussbaum.

Abigail is stepping down as reviews editor at the end of the year, and the reviews will be passed on to a team of people. Maureen Kincaid Speller will be Senior Reviews Editor, and (this is my big announcement bit) she’ll be working with me and Dan Hartland. We (we!) are also hoping to find someone to do media reviews (details here).

What this means is:

a) I get to work with people I like and respect (and if you’re not already reading Dan’s and Maureen’s criticism you should be) on something I really care about.

b) Abigail will hopefully have more time to write for us (if you’re not already reading Abigail’s criticism you should be).

c) I will shortly be having a minor crisis about Being Good Enough.

d) This is going to be great!

September 23, 2014

Linda Grant, I Murdered My Library

One of the things that’s interesting about Grant’s kindle single is the way in which the lines between how we talk about physical books[1] and ebooks are constantly crossed by its format and subject. As I say below, pieces of this length are probably financially more feasible in ebook form, and yet it’s mostly about physical books, and has a (electronic) cover that deliberately invokes a very specific print publishing tradition. I think what I was going for in this week’s column is that this makes it particularly interesting to see how the book is read; in what ways it can be (or resists being) co-opted into the various conversations around books-vs-ebooks (and indeed the discourse that puts that “vs” there at all). And the ebook format allows us access to some of that information about how it’s being read/used in unique ways.

I think instead I come across as crotchety and annoyed that other people are highlighting the WRONG things.

(They are, though.)

 

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I find it very easy to be very annoyed by the sort of people who rhapsodise over the smell of books (you can now buy a perfume that claims to capture this) or the feel of them, or the magic space that is a bookshop. I love rooting through second-hand bookshops, but I always want to wash my hands afterwards; I do most of my book-buying online; sometimes I’ll even walk into a bookshop and look at what’s on offer and not want any of it. It feels often as if the idea of books (of being the sort of person who reads) is more important than the fact of them—I don’t recognise myself in the culture that produces such things as the cringeworthy “date a girl who reads” meme. Occasionally someone will tell me that they can’t read ebooks because they require the physical presence of a book, and perhaps this is really true for them; but I find myself wondering how many books they buy and read per year, whether they have magic houses and space-time-continuum-defying shelves, whether they ever move across the world (or just down the road) and have to confront the sheer weight of books. I’m probably displaying all manner of prejudice in doing so, and yet.

One of the several advantages of reading Linda Grant’s short piece I Murdered My Library as an ebook (perhaps the most obvious is that pieces of writing this length are much more feasible in a world where we have ebooks) is that the Kindle usefully marks for you not only the sentences that you yourself have noticed and highlighted, but the things that a number of other readers have. And so I know that here as well, readers have been most moved by things like “you cannot have a taste for minimalist décor if you seriously read books”, or “reading wasn’t my religion—it was my oxygen”. At one point nearly an entire page bears the dotted underline that tells me that other readers have been here before me (in this the whole thing resembles a much-used library book). The only part of the page left un-annotated until I highlight it myself is a section where Grant speaks of a specific author, Jean Rhys, and it’s the most moving thing there.

Because when Grant writes about books it’s clear that she’s very aware of the weight of them, in the metaphorical as well as the purely physical sense. She can speak of Rhys and make me teary; she can also speak of the usefulness of knowing that Tom Stoppard once wrote a novel (“Lord Malquist and Mr Moon was the literary equivalent of the Wonderbra for the intellectually pretentious students of the seventies”). Physical books can be charged with meaning and personal history; reading and owning books can be oppressive to the point that it’s possible to feel hatred.

On the subject of ebooks Grant is pragmatic; some things aren’t available as ebooks, sometimes technology fails, much of the time it’s a relief to have lots of reading material in one tiny device (“[and it] feels more intimate, like a shelled animal carrying its home on its back”). Paper books can be burnt or pulped or thrown away and it’s a sad necessity and/or a tragedy; “but you can’t kill books” (she quotes Amos Oz).

And yet, and yet. “It is death that we’re talking about. Death is the subject”. A library is a bigger idea than the individual books of which it’s made; and it’s at the point when Grant resigns herself to the impossibility of her library and discards most of it, that the book begins and ends. The moment of the murder. You can feel the suppressed horror rising through the book; Grant’s last words are “what have I done?”

 

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 [1] See Raghu Karnad’s “booksing” piece, also Kuzhali Manickavel on maybe not wanting to fondle/sniff/lick/have sex with secondhand books that smell weird.

September 11, 2014

Accessing the Future: A Conversation Between Djibril al-Ayad and Kathryn Allan. Part III

Djibril al-Ayad (one of the editors of We See a Different Frontier, which I loved) and Kathryn Allan (editor of Disability in Science Fiction, which I reviewed here) are editing an anthology that (in their own words) “will explore disability—and the intersectionality of race, nationality, gender, sexuality, and class—in both the imagined physical and virtual spaces of the future. They want people of all abilities to see themselves, as they are now and as they want to be, in our collective human future(s)”. The campaign is here; it passed the minimum target a few days ago, but the editors are hoping to achieve various stretch goals, such as being able to pay pro rates for the stories.

I’m really looking forward to this, in large part because they are editors I respect very much, and agreed to host the final third of a conversation between them here on the blog. You can read the first and second parts here and here respectively. With artwork (originally from here) by Robin Kaplan, who will be doing the book’s cover.

 

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[Kathryn writes:] Because we can’t stop geeking out about the science fiction we love (and want to see!), I asked my co-editor Djibril al-Ayad a few questions about his thoughts on Accessing the Future. What unfolded was, in my opinion, an insightful look into the rewards of editing on the margins of genre when you have a love of SF and an open mind. The interview ended up being longer than we intended (this is a good thing!), so we decided to break it up into three parts. Today we share with you Part III. (See part I and part II.)

[Kathryn] I think we first met during a Twitter #feministSFchat on cyberpunk (or something equally cool). What is the appeal of feminist SF and cyberpunk to you?

[Djibril] Feminist (i.e., intersectional) science fiction has always seemed to me the greatest value of speculative fiction, writing that doesn’t take place in the “real world”; that may be because I started reading after the 1970s, so it’s always been around for me. Cyberpunk was the genre I grew up with, and it was cool, it was slick, it had heroes I could aspire to be (because I couldn’t fight, didn’t want to go into space, but I could code!) and because it satirized the übercapitalist world I could see being built around me. But although cyberpunk grew in part out of the political, experimental, non-conformist science fiction of the 60s and 70s, which very much included feminist writers like Russ, Le Guin and Piercy, these influences were largely unacknowledged, and the genre became pretty macho. Feminist and queer cyberpunk has always been around too, of course, and great novels by Melissa Scott, Nicola Griffith, Nalo Hopkinson, Laura J. Mixon, Lauren Beukes and a hundred others have been breaking this ice since at least the 90s. There is of course scope for much, much more.

[Kathryn] Yes! Thank you for pointing out the feminist SF influences of cyberpunk. I think our shared love and understanding of feminist SF and cyberpunk is how we knew we’d work well together. What other subgenres of SF do you enjoy reading & publishing?

[Djibril] I feel kind of the same about other genres: I enjoy classic horror, Lovecraftian paranormal noir, sword and sorcery, but these days I get impatient if there isn’t a meaningful, progressive twist to it. Forget your creepily lovingly portrayed serial killers, your puritan New Englander professors, your noble kings and generals; I want to read about ghosts fighting back against colonial oppression, minorities standing up to corporate-organized Cthulhu cultists, fantasy with lower class, queer or other marginalized protagonists fighting for their world.

[Kathryn] Speaking of corporate-organized Cthulhu cultists, as an editor, what advice would you give to aspiring writers who feel marginalized by mainstream publishing?

[Djibril] This is a tough one. It would be self-serving of me to say that mainstream publishing isn’t everything, that there are small presses and indie magazines out there that are hungry for good writing, that love marginalized authors and topics, that will cherish rk-fearoffalling1and promote and maybe even be a step along the path to broader recognition for writers neglected by the mainstream at the moment. But I don’t know if it’s usefully true; and I certainly know it isn’t enough.

By the same token, some would advise them to self-publish, because you can make it that way too, sidestepping the mainstream. There’s a lot of privilege behind such advice as well, though (not to mention a juicy slice of the Capitalist Dream), because it ignores the ingrained prejudices that infect readers of indie works as much as it does the mainstream gatekeepers themselves. I’m blissfully unaware of a lot of disadvantages that I’m privileged not to face myself. So while we and quite a few other small press publishers will do their best to signal boost underrepresented authors, and while the advice I’d give to *any* writer would be to keep writing, whatever you write, whoever reads it, because practice and persistence is worth infinitely more than any “raw talent”, I don’t pretend that I have any of the answers, or that my saying nice or inspirational things is going to make it easier.

 

Please support the Accessing the Future anthology at igg.me/at/accessingfuture.

September 10, 2014

August Reading

… which sounds entirely different from what it is meant to signify: the books I read in August.

There were not many of them; between conventions in London and conference-planning in Newcastle the only time I read at all was on trains. But I did manage to read a few things.

 

Robert Galbraith, The Silkworm: I’ve seen some positive reviews of this book that treat its portrayal of the publishing industry and its books within the book as revelatory, and I feel like I might be missing something? I did genuinely enjoy it though.

Diana Wynne Jones, Dark Lord of Derkholm, The Year of the Griffin, Howl’s Moving Castle, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: I was involved in a Diana Wynne Jones conference that was to take place at the beginning of September (that it is now over is the only reason I’m able to post this thing now). I reread The Tough Guide and Dark Lord of Derkholm for my own paper, The Year of the Griffin because having reread DLoD I thought I might as well (and also it’s just good), Howl’s Moving Castle because I was moderating a panel about the adaptation to film (and would also be seeing the film for the first time in a long while). I feel that the proper response to weeks of thinking about the conference ought to be to not want to think about Jones for a while. Instead, I find myself contemplating a complete reread.

Rainbow Rowell, Landline: I wrote about this here.

Nick Harkaway, Tigerman: Tigerman offers so much to unpack and play with that it’s the sort of thing that critics ought to love. And so much of it looks so obvious and over-drawn, and then the whole is salvaged by quiet, individual moments that have quite a lot of emotional power. I’ll be discussing this elsewhere at length, but for now I’m very glad it exists.

Bhajju Shyam, The London Jungle Book: I wrote about this here.

C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, The Horse and His Boy, The Magician’s Nephew, The Last Battle: I have reached the Narnia and Postcolonialism bit of my thesis and there is far too much to work with.

Georgette Heyer, Regency Buck: I needed Heyer, because I was exhausted with moving, and this was all there was. It’s very far from being my favourite of her works, and I’d forgotten how irritating the main characters are. The Beau Brummel cameo is still great though.

 

September 8, 2014

Rainbow Rowell, Landline

I did not read much last month (I will post my regular list in the next few days, along with my excuses) but a thing that I did read and enjoy was the new Rainbow Rowell.

A thing I do not address here that is nonetheless worth talking about is, as Din pointed out in a conversation elsewhere, the extent to which the book’s premise is gendered and what it does with that. Probably a task for someone other than me, considering how bad I’ve been at writing words down lately.

Here is a column, anyway.

 

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Neal is the perfect father, working from home and looking after the children, cooking healthy meals for the family, making the house beautiful. His wife Georgie is a comedy writer who does not cook, works long hours and, horror of horrors, has chosen to prioritise attempting to achieve her dream job over her family this Christmas.

This is the situation with which Rainbow Rowell’s Landline opens. Neal flies home to his family, taking the children with him and avoiding Georgie’s calls. Georgie is left to spend the few days before Christmas alone. Then by chance she uses the landline in her mother’s house to call her husband and finds herself talking to Neal again—not the Neal of 2013, but the Neal of 1998, when he and Georgie had just become a couple and when she used to call him on this number.

The conceit is vaguely science-fictional (a phone that allows you to call someone in the past); the execution is not. Some of the staples of time travel fiction show up later in the story—conversations with characters who are dead in the book’s present, the potential for paradoxes, the suggestion that these conversations are a part of the past which the Neal of the present remembers. But all of this is relegated to the background, existing merely to put these characters into this situation. It’s not science fiction, and I suspect this may be important to a reading of it.Landlinegrey-1-e1381519474537-300x441

I think more than anything else Landline is in dialogue with a particular sort of romance narrative, and one I’m very susceptible to, that has the teenaged romance of the nineties as a sort of ideal of the form. It works because we find the story of the young protagonists meeting at the college magazine, falling in love through a series of misunderstandings, worrying about the future familiar and likeable; for readers (women in particular, since this sort of narrative tends to be marketed to us) it’s a story we grew up with.

It’s no surprise, then, that at times the young Neal is more appealing than adult Neal, even to Georgie. “She hoped this was the right Neal. (She didn’t mean the right Neal, she meant the young one.)” Youth and young love are important because beginnings are important; for much of the book Georgie is allowed to believe that if she can only say the right things to the Neal of the past, she has a chance of fixing her relationship with the Neal of the present.

Where Landline is interesting, though, is in the moments when it challenges this construction of romance and forces us to see these characters as flawed adults who have already said the right things, who have begun well but still need to work on what they have.

And perhaps this is the deeper reason why this book is not a science fictional novel. The time travel story of necessity generally constructs time as a series of events that lead to other events, so that changing one small thing can affect the whole world. Everything may be connected, in a butterfly effect sort of way, but some form of cause-effect relationship is still there and the only reason we can’t plot it out is the impossibility of sufficient data. With the right amount of knowledge perhaps we could go back in time and kill Hitler and not cause any awful effects to our own world.

No, suggests Landline, you can’t just swoop in and change things, however much you want to, because things are constantly moving and human relationships are a work in progress. Rowell’s book ends with a grand gesture that is narratively satisfying, but we’re never allowed to believe this is the end of the characters’ problems. Time and relationships don’t work that way, even if you have a magic phone.

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September 1, 2014

The future is ScarJo

I have watched a lot of Scarlett Johansson movies this year. I have also watched other movies, some of which are mentioned in this thing I wrote recently for the Indian Express (this version is slightly edited, the result of having rewatched Lucy). This isn’t the long Scarlett Johansson’s Summer of SF piece I crave, and I hope someone does write that soon. I do want to write more about Lucy which, for all its badness is occasionally bad in really interesting ways (on twitter, Rahul Kanakia summed it up for me when he said it was nice to see “an SF film with vision and ambition”, even if “both vision and ambition were very stupid”). But not yet.

 

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A young American student in Taiwan falls into the hands of drug smugglers, who surgically insert a packet of a new chemical into her stomach. When the package leaks, its effects upon her system are catastrophic—her capacity to use her brain expands, allowing her to manipulate matter and absorb huge amounts of information at a glance, but she has not long to live.

Accepting the obvious, that no movie exists in a cultural vacuum, it’s tempting to read Luc Besson’s Lucy in the context of other recent movies. Scarlett Johansson, who plays the titular character, has starred in a run of science fiction films over the last year—she plays an alien in a human body in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, a quickly-developing sentient computer operating system in the Oscar-nominated Her, and spy-turned-superhero the Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

All of these roles have her cast as an outsider and observer of humanity– even the Marvel movies, where her character is self-contained and closed-off. Johansson brings to them all a sort of curious detachment that is genuinely effective. Under the Skin opens with the putting-together of the alien character’s eye so that from the beginning we’re aware of her as a being who sees; in a probably-accidental parallel scene in Besson’s film, Lucy comes back to consciousness after the drug has wracked her body and we see her eye blinking through several shapes and permutations before coming to rest.

And yet. As the nameless protagonist of Under The Skin comes closer to humanity, we’re invited to see the creatures she preys on as vulnerable, thinking beings. Black Widow’s arc has her open up and form gradual friendships with her new colleagues. Samantha, the “her” of Her, begins by forging a relationship with one human but is soon involved in intimate connections with hundreds, her developing intellect allowing for a larger relationship with other creatures, human or AI. Lucy, by contrast, is growing away from the humans around her.

Lucy has a number of resonances with another big science fiction movie of this summer, Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, in which brilliant scientist Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall) uploads her dying husband’s consciousness to a powerful computer. With access to near-infinite amounts of information and a rapidly expanding consciousness, Will Caster (Johnny Depp) turns into something of a monster. Both films have their protagonists grow more and more remote, both are martyred for science (Transcendence seems a little more ambivalent than Lucy on this subject). Both feature Morgan Freeman in the supporting role of a scientist whose job is largely to look wise and reflect upon the follies of mankind. Both use TED talk style settings as a tool for exposition. Neither is very good.

And yet it’s interesting (or ought to be) to consider what these two science fiction films about characters transcending what we know as human, released within a few months of each other, have to say about humanity and where it goes from here.

Nowhere good, appears to be the answer. Lucy’s preliminary reaction to the changes in her body is to travel around Taiwan indiscriminately killing the local people—the film’s racial politics are about what you’d suspect from the trailer, which consists entirely of Johansson’s character killing Asian men—and even as she becomes more resigned to her situation and tries to reach out she finds it harder to make connections with other people.  Will Caster’s expanded consciousness doesn’t extend to such things as greater empathy—he quickly begins to use other people’s bodies as tools and even with the wife whom he loves he is unable to grasp the concept of consent. (The scene in which Hall’s Evelyn reacts to his violation of her boundaries with an almost-childish “you’re not allowed!” is one of the most powerful in the film.)

Apart from being a tragically limited understanding of human intelligence, I suspect this is bad science—though accepting flawed science is probably a prerequisite of both films.

Early in the film, as Lucy is pursued by her captors we cut to Discovery channel-style footage of a predator fleeing prey—at one level she is just another animal. In a late scene we see her travel through time to meet the first Lucy, our earliest human ancestor and reach out to her, re-enacting Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (previously shown in the film, which doesn’t really trust its audience to understand things like metaphors). Across time and space and thousands of years of evolution the first and last humans (because when Lucy’s brain has reached 100% capacity where else is there to go?) see each other, and forge a connection. The film can identify Lucy with animals, or with our most distant ancestors, or with the Biblical God; when it comes to humans in our current form both it, and Lucy herself, don’t seem to know what to do.

In this Lucy is the more intelligent of the two films (which is to say very little); more than once we see her struggling to hold on to her humanity.  Yet the question remains. Freeman’s character, Professor Norman, tells Lucy that one of the most important functions of life forms is to pass on knowledge. A suggestion that this knowledge might be misused is made, then dismissed. “Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it,” says Lucy, at the end of the film. I suspect many of us would prefer not to.

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