June 6, 2017

April and May Reading

By the time I sat down to write about what I’d read in April, it was nearly June (it is now very much June). Thus: a two month reading post, in which, as you’ll see, not very much actual reading was done.

 

Alex Wheatle, Straight Outta Crongton: Naturally I’ll be writing about this at length eventually, but some preliminary (potentially spoiler-y?) thoughts: firstly, there’s something interesting going on with time here. Straight Outta Crongton has as one of its major characters Elaine, older sister to the protagonist of Liccle Bit, but it’s set a few years before that novel, when Elaine is in her mid teens and hasn’t yet met Manjaro. So it’s a prequel; that in itself isn’t unusual–but all its cultural references are current. So either all three books take place in a much tighter time frame than I’ve been assuming (and even then, considering Obama is the former US president in this book that can’t be all), or Crongton is outside time for the space of the books (much as it’s set in a place that isn’t real), or this is the current book and Liccle Bit and Crongton Knights are set in the future. It’s also in many ways darker than the first two books, and thinking about that both in terms of This Historical Moment and of Wheatle’s switch to a cast of mostly women is interesting to chew on. It’s good, which is the important thing.

Robin Stevens, Cream Buns and Crime: Because I read every Robin Stevens book about ten minutes after it becomes available, I’d also been buying her Wells and Wong short stories as they came out as ebooks. Cream Buns and Crime is in part a vehicle for getting those short stories into print, so that alongside the couple of new stories and other material in this collection, I was effectively getting a bunch of things I’d already got. Which is not an unusual thing for a publisher to do, but did make the book a bit underwhelming as a New Robin Stevens Book. The couple of new stories are good, though I’m slightly offended at the break from the Hazel-writes-the-novels, Daisy-writes-the-shorts tradition (one of these is a Junior Pinkertons story, and one is narrated by Beanie.

Hope Larson, Brittney Williams, Sarah Stern, Goldie Vance Vol. 1: The friend who lent this to me grabbed my interest by claiming it was a girl detective story, set in a 1950′s hotel, with a queer romance subplot–all of which made for a convincing argument. She did not mention the drag racing and cold war anxieties  (in retrospect, I ought to have expected both) or indeed the space! plot (which I did not expect). I don’t know how I feel about the comic’s choice to so completely identify with its heroine’s 20th century American fears of The Russians, however plausible that might be for this setting, but it’s still really charming.

Innosanto Nagara, My Night in the Planetarium: Nagara has featured in these monthly lists of reading before for his alphabet and counting board books, A is for Anarchist and Counting on Community. This is a few steps up as regards reading age–where the audience of A is for Anarchist was probably going to have to rely on parents for conversations about what “Zapatista” meant (which was one of the book’s strengths, of course), this has brief, accessible explanations of colonialism, censorship and recent history, woven into an autobiographical story. The art continues to be great, and I think Nagara’s achieving a really interesting balance between taking big things seriously and making them accessible to very young readers.

Rick Riordan, The Dark Prophecy: I don’t know that I have much to say about this, given that it’s mid-series; I did enjoy it, but was also a bit underwhelmed. The previous book set up a horrifying, complicated situation (wrt one character’s history of abuse, and her relationship to the man who abused her); the abuser is not in this book, which is nice; but the problem seems rather to have vanished for the duration of his absence, which is … hm. On the other hand, I’ve been reading these interconnected series since they started and there’s something so nice about (how to say this without sounding patronising? I don’t mean to be) seeing Riordan’s politics evolve, and seeing the books increasingly value particular forms of community and safety. (Also there’s a very good elephant.)

Elsie J. Oxenham, Stowaways in the Abbey; Strangers in the Abbey:  Readers of this blog know of my series-completionist side, which has led me to make unfortunate choices in the past. These two were the result of a visit to Barter books some weeks ago. I’ve read most of the Abbey series at some point or another, but my knowledge of the “retrospective” titles (see) is patchy. As with many fill in titles both of these are heavy on the foreshadowing (see for example Jen’s insistence that Joan is going to call her daughter Janice, and that said daughter will be May queen at school and will choose lobelias for her flower, or all the discussion of the marriageability of the various Marchwood brothers). While I was reading I was having thoughts about the level of emotion these books allow their characters to show (too much, she said disapprovingly)–it’s all heightened to a point that feels ludicrous to me, but then there are solid reasons for that, and if this was a genre other than Books For Mid-Century Girls they would probably be more clearly theorised. Still, these are extremely far from being among the better Oxenham books.

May 7, 2017

Malorie Blackman, Chasing The Stars

chasing starsI have a review of Malorie Blackman’s most recent novel in Strange Horizons this week–most of my thoughts on the book are therefore to be found over there. Both as an SF novel and as an adaptation of Othello I found it … not great, but intriguing. In the review I read it in the context of the other texts that it is (both explicitly and implicitly) bouncing off, and suggest that it works better as an intervention into those works than it does as a thing in itself. Which is all fine.

But that isn’t the only context in which I’m reading the book–it’s also a children’s book, and more importantly (this year, at least) it’s a Carnegie-eligible children’s book. It appeared on the list of nominations for the Carnegie medal, as well as being shortlisted for the Guardian and Waterstones prizes and longlisted for the Jhalak prize. Some further thoughts, then:

I’ve been reading this book as an adult, a science fiction fan, and a person who knows Othello relatively well; and my particular reading of it means that I find it harder than usual to imagine how the book would work in the absence of those contexts. (The internet suggests that lots of people are coming to it that way, and many seem to be enjoying it.)  It also makes judging it in light of the Carnegie criteria seem rather meaningless.

(But let’s try anyway: with the exception of the Love At First Sight trope the characters and their development do make sense; there’s clever use of “literary conventions and techniques” though not necessarily as I think those criteria intend; the resolution is credible; I’m going to stop now because the Carnegie criteria always feel weird and limited to me.)

In the review I mention very briefly the fact that Olivia’s interest in film becomes a marker of class. I was trying not to give too much away, and also not get boring and rambly, but that is not a concern on my own blog, so here are some details.

For most of the book, the only characters we see Olivia interacting with, other than her brother, are the refugees. We know that Vee’s interest in old-timey films is weird because she tells us so, and also because when she makes movie references in conversations with her new crew they seem to be confused by them. But–these characters are also former “drones”, a sort of underclass who work in the mines, most of whom were born into these conditions. There’s a point in the book where Nathan points out that drones do not have the opportunity to watch films and read books, so that the access that Vee has always taken for granted, and which is a basic condition of her particular hobby, is specifically a function of her class position within the universe. Vee is taken aback, assimilates this into her understanding of the universe, moves on; it’s a throwaway scene, though one of many in which Nathan and his friends draw attention to the fact that Olivia has watched films and they have not.

[Here be spoilers]

Late in the book we discover that the serial killer aboard the ship is Doctor Sheen, the colony’s sole doctor who has never herself been a drone. Sheen wants to get back to Earth–with her knowledge of the drones and their allies she can easily buy her freedom–and has been killing off those on the ship towards this goal. She is, however, willing to see Vee as an equal and a potential ally, because “You have a love of literature and films and music and art, all the things that separate us from beasts and drones.”

And I’m wondering how this knowledge, that a familiarity with certain sorts of culture is both a marker of power and a weapon itself, sits with a book which is itself a reworking of a classic (and is thus made richer and deeper in the reading by the reader’s knowledge of its intertext/s), and there’s a lot here that is rich and interesting and that I’m not sure yet what to do with.

 

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The other thing that I could not fit into the review was the revelation that at one point, when Vee and Nathan are having sex, the act of cunnilingus is described as “to go where no one had gone before”. I’m not sure whether Star Trek exists within the universe of the book, but I’m choosing to believe this is a widely-used euphemism among Olivia’s people.

April 30, 2017

Another Carnegie Project

Eagle-eyed readers of this blog will have noticed that I’m not, as I was this time last year, reading and reviewing the shortlist for the Carnegie medal–and will probably not be surprised.

Last year (why make more words when I can use my old ones?), I said this:

So what have the last three years’ Carnegie shortlists had to say about British children’s literature, other than that the judges and I don’t seem to agree on very much? Well for one, that non-white authors don’t write it. In each of the last three years (and I’d be interested in going back a few more years to see if things are better at any point) the shortlist has been composed entirely of white authors. This year I was so annoyed to see it happen again that I decided I’d read all the books by non-white authors on the nominees list. There are 93 entries on the nominees list. There are 4 books that I know to be by authors who aren’t white– and hopefully some I’ve missed, because those numbers are dismal. The Carnegie shortlist loves talking about race–though as Karen Sands-O’Connor points out here, it seems to prefer it when the whole thing can be conveniently displaced onto America, as with last year’s winner Buffalo Soldier, last year’s shortlist-ee, Ghost Hawk, and this year’s Lies We Tell Ourselves. (Or Australia, in last year’s Middle of Nowhere, or another planet, as with Patrick Ness’s Monsters of Men.) (And the celebration of books like The Child’s Elephant by Rachel Campbell-Johnston and Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper suggests a reluctance to engage with the ways in which structural racism allows certain books to be published and lauded.)

This year, the award went a step further in achieving an entirely white longlist as well, this time provoking some level of pushback from authors and critics. CILIP have announced that there will be a review (they’ve also included some of the usual “this has started a useful conversation” nonsense that makes me rageous, but moving on …), and that there may need to be structural changes–including to the existing criteria for examining the books. I’m curious to see how this turns out, but the current state of British publishing doesn’t make me too hopeful.

So why not give up on the Carnegie altogether? Honestly, I’m tempted. My academic work tends to focus on the British children’s literary canon, and like many people who work with a canon I spend a lot of time worrying that in producing more work on (e.g.) Arthur Ransome and C.S. Lewis and Mary Norton I’m just reinscribing their centrality to British children’s literature. But I work on Britishness after empire; and literary awards, and the creation of national literatures, are a key part of how this imagined community articulates its nationhood to itself.

This is particularly the case with the Carnegie, an award set up specifically as a British children’s literature award, and one whose parameters have shifted with shifting ideas of what that word “British” might encompass. Owen Dudley Edwards (British Children’s Fiction in the Second World War, Edinburgh University Press, 2007) notes that while the award at its inception in 1936 had claimed to reward “the best book for children published in the British Empire”, this wording morphed within a few years to refer to “England” (probably a result of parochialism rather than a deliberate attempt to exclude writers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). In 1944 the criteria changed again to specify “a British subject domiciled in the United Kingdom” and “published in Great Britain”. And so forth. (The current eligibility criteria merely require the book to have been published in the UK first, or within three months of its first publication, which avoids that minefield at least.)

All of which means that if you’re studying Britishness and children’s literature, the Carnegie medal is pretty hard to ignore. If the books rewarded by the medal change with a changing understanding of what a “British” book might be, one is compelled to notice what is not rewarded by the medal–where the limits of this Britishness lie. When, 82 years into the creation of the award, it has never been won by a non white writer … well.

 

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Here is the complete list of nominees for the medal for 2017, according to the website. On it, there are eight books that I’m aware of by authors who aren’t white. There are some omissions that confuse me (were neither of  Catherine Johnson’s two most recent books eligible?); and googling the names of unfamiliar authors and titles is of necessity a crude method for determining something like this, so there may be others I’ve missed (and I’d be grateful to be corrected if so).

 

Booked, by Kwame Alexander

Alpha, by Bessora and Barroux (trans. Sarah Ardizzone)

Chasing the Stars, by Malorie Blackman

Where Monsters Lie, by Polly Ho-Yen

Orangeboy, by Patrice Lawrence

The Girl of Ink & Stars, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Crongton Knights, by Alex Wheatle

Everything, Everything, by Nicola Yoon

 

In an alternate universe, this might have been the shortlist for the medal (how many black and brown writers on a list is enough?). Given the rather shameful stats for the publication of children’s books by BAME authors, the last year or so has been unusually good for rewarding them.  Orangeboy was shortlisted for the Costa and won a Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, The Girl of Ink and Stars is on the Jhalak shortlist and won another Waterstones prize as well as the overall prize,  Nicola Yoon’s second book was a National Book Award finalist and is on the Waterstones list (and Everything, Everything is being made into a film, for what that’s worth), Crongton Knights won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, Malorie Blackman has won literally everything that isn’t the Carnegie (she was on the shortlist for Pig Heart Boy nearly ten years ago) and has been the Children’s Laureate. This is not an attempt to argue for the merit of these books (some of which I have not yet read) over the ones currently on the shortlist. It’s to say that, if one were to pick a shortlist of eight possible contenders from the nominations list (something like the Shadow Clarke), the list above would have been plausible.

 

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Alex Wheatle pointed out in this conversation on twitter that one of the reasons the Carnegie is so influential is precisely that it is shadowed–that schools (and other groups, like the one I’ve been a part of for the last few years) read and discuss the books in question, so that if books by BAME and other non white authors are not shortlisted they’re entirely removed from the conversation.

All of which is a longwinded way to say: I’m not interested in contributing to a conversation that has to take place in the absence of these authors. I don’t have the institutional power to take people with me, but instead of the official shortlist, this year* I’ll be reading and writing about my possible shortlist instead. I’m cheating a bit, since I’ve read some of them already. I wrote about Crongton Knights here and The Girl of Ink & Stars here, and my review of Chasing The Stars will be appearing in Strange Horizons in the next few days. I’m particularly curious about Nick Poole’s suggestion that “there may be a case for changing the criteria to protect the prize from unconscious bias”, so am considering returning to the books I’ve already read and reflecting on how they do or don’t work with the existing criteria upon which the books are judged. As the Millwood Hargrave and (when it’s out) Blackman reviews will show, I’m not expecting to adore these books or rage about how their authors were robbed–as a reviewer my default position is grumpy. But if I’m to direct my critical energy at anything, I’d rather it be these books than their absence.

 

 

 

 

*I’d like to say “this summer” and map this project onto the actual Carnegie timetable, but I also have a thesis to finish writing …

 

April 4, 2017

March Reading

March was a great month for buying books (far too many ebooks, trips to bookshops in London that I like, including what could so easily have been a final chance to go to New Beacon [but it wasn’t]), but it was also a heavily research-focused month so that I didn’t actually get that much read. I did get into the excellent habit of reading one story from Speak Gigantular before bed each night–the sort of civilised reading habit that I’ve always found rather awe-inspiring in other people. Apart from the Okojie, each of the books mentioned here I read in a day or so, so that I don’t feel like I did very much reading at all.

 

Patrice Lawrence, Orangeboy: I’ve written about this already; I think it’s great. It’s a gentler book than its premise (protagonist, who is a black teenage boy, is found with drugs on him and the girl who gave them to him has died sitting next to him) suggests, though always alive to the implications and the dangers of the situation. It’s also just … good; in its prose, in how it’s paced, in its random art references.

Irenosen Okojie, Speak Gigantular: As I say above, I read this in bits and pieces over a longish period of time. As a result, I don’t have a strong sense of the collection as a collection; I have a sense of how it all fits together, but need a more condensed reread to really be sure. But the individual stories that make up Speak Gigantular are frequently great, and weird, and upsetting. I’ve half committed to writing about this collection in more detail, so I’ll be returning to it very soon.

Chloe Daykin, Fish Boy: The blurb on the front of this is probably not one for the ages: “a talking mackerel changes everything …” Fish Boy (which is a lot better than that blurb) is about Billy, who loves the sea and David Attenborough, is terrified by his mother’s mysterious illness, and really wants to be friends with the new boy, Patrick. While swimming, he meets and grows increasingly close to a mackerel shoal, particularly to a fish he names Bob. I’m going to be writing about this at greater length, but I really liked its invocations of friendship and family and uncertainty and caring, its northernness, and its slight air of apocalypse.

Nicola Yoon, Everything, Everything: This book was absurdly readable–I started it on a lazy evening, read straight through and was done a couple of hours later. Its romance is over the top but satisfying, its use of various formats (text and email, but also backwards writing and medical reports and book reviews and creative dictionary definitions) good, the illustrations (by David Yoon) are nice. But (as I say elsewhere) there are also what feel to me like significant weaknesses–and the final act in particular feels less like the miracle the characters need and more like a cop-out.

Innosanto Nagara, Counting on Community: I read Nagara’s A is for Anarchist some months ago, and have since gifted it to a couple of friends with small children. I’m unable to say much that is useful about a board book, but this one is also great (though the numbers 1-10 leave less scope to play than the whole alphabet), the art continues to be good, there are several ducks, and I will also be passing this one on to actual children.

March 26, 2017

Patrice Lawrence, Orangeboy

orangeboyI don’t like thrillers. The specific ways in which tension works in a thriller narrative tend to register to me as actively unpleasant. This was true even before the last year or so made me spectacularly unable to deal with vulnerable characters being put at risk. But I knew I was going to be reading Orangeboy, however reluctantly–it was Carnegie-eligible (though not on the shortlist or longlist, but that is a matter for a separate post), Costa-shortlisted, Waterstones prize-shortlisted, Jhalak prize-longlisted; and it’s a work of YA about a young black character and by a black British author at a moment when both British publishing and Britain itself seem to be really doubling down on racial exclusion.

So I did the bad thing (I don’t really think this was a bad thing); early in the book, when our protagonist Marlon has been found with drugs in his pocket and a dead white girl next to him and I was particularly worried about where this was going to go, I flipped to the back of the book to see how it ended. Knowing where it was going to go made it a much easier book to read.

But all of this is perhaps overemphasising my reluctance–even before I’d had to check the ending, I was already surprised by how quickly and easily I’d fallen into the book.

Marlon is in his teens, a bit of a nerd, good at school but generally not remarkable. His father (who is responsible for naming him Marlon Isaac Asimov Sunday) is dead, his older brother badly injured in a car accident some years ago that killed his best friend Sharkie and has left him scarred and, among other things, unable to remember his little brother very well. As the book opens, Marlon is at the fair with Sonya Wilson, a pretty girl from school who has, out of the blue and to his utter bewilderment, asked him out. Marlon has avoided drugs in large part because of his older brother’s example, but Sonya gets him to try ecstasy. Then, as they ride the ghost train, she convinces him to hide the rest of the pills in his pants. And by the time they have emerged from the tunnel, she’s dead and he doesn’t understand what has happened or why. Suddenly, he’s involved not just with the police, but in deeper and deeper trouble, with someone who is clearly targeting him.

It’s interesting to be reading Orangeboy in the same year as I’ve read both (so far) of Alex Wheatle’s Crongton books, because though very different in tone (and Wheatle’s books feel directed at a younger audience) they work off one another in some interesting ways. As with both Crongton books, Lawrence’s protagonist is drawn into this dangerous series of events as a result of an older sibling’s previous choices. (Choice is a loaded word here, and we’re given plenty of opportunity to see how those choices are weighted, but at the same time, these characters are never merely hapless victims of circumstance. There is, for example, a definite moment when Marlon decides he’s going to put himself at risk to find out what happened to Sonya. Even if later events show that had he backed away his targeters still would have come after him, that decision still has meaning.) There’s also, as with Wheatle, a very specific and deliberate use of cultural reference not to underpin the text and give it a particular structure and meaning (or not only that, as that seems to be one of the functions of the quest literature references in Crongton Knights) but for colour, and warmth, and play.

So we get:

Walking through the estate, I tried to remember the streets I’d passed. Rothko Heights, Dali Court, Turner Tower. These ones were different. [...]

Mondrian, Blake, Hirst. This definitely wasn’t the way I came.

(c.f. the Notre Dame sections of Crongton Knights.)

Then there’s a throwaway detail that Marlon’s best friend is really named Titian. Marlon himself, as I’ve said, has “Isaac Asimov” as his middle names (his mother tells him it might have been worse, he might have been named after a minor Blakes 7 character*), and we learn later that his first name is “after Superman’s dad in the film”. His dad proposed to his mother in Klingon, his brother’s middle names are “Han and Luke”, he himself describes Tish’s new boyfriend as “a skinny version of Roy, the mad replicant from Blade Runner“. Some of this feels a bit clumsy (though I’m suppressing my “Star Trek and Star Wars?” scepticism); some of it’s marvellously built in; there’s a moment where he describes his brother’s crooked glasses and “the scar that almost cut his face in two” and doesn’t mention Harry Potter. But either way, I like the way it layers the Sunday family as composed of SF fans, their London as composed of art references, gives them, and their world, more to do and be than characters in a thriller. (The book’s cover also feels relevant here.) Perhaps the one character to suffer that fate is Sonya, whose death quickly shifts from being the central mystery to an unimportant aside, as the book reassures us that really it’s all about Marlon. (But perhaps this is not the time to complain about the Problem With All Narratives That Foreground A Protagonist.)

There’s lots to like, so here are some things: That Marlon has a mum who goes in to fight for him magnificently; that her, and therefore his, circumstances give him privileges that another character like D-Ice can’t count on; that moment where D-Ice invokes fairytale naming powers (if only to remind Marlon that they’re not real; Louis leaving the police force; the number of ways the book dramatises care between friends and family and community–from Tish’s willingness to date assholes for information that’ll keep Marlon safe to Marlon’s own choice to keep his mother safe from the knowledge that her words turned Marlon and Andre into targets (she’s bound to find out, but this again is one of those choices that mean something in and of themselves) to little things like bus drivers who slow down for women to catch them. I’m not reconciled to the genre, and I don’t think I’m going to enjoy reading about danger for a while; but in the spaces outside and around its thriller plot, Orangeboy manages, quietly, to build and make more imaginable things that feel nourishing.

 

 

* Because I’m friends with Erin Horáková (whose essay on Blakes 7 you should read), I feel compelled to point out that Orangeboy spells the title with an apostrophe and my loyalties demand that I register disapproval.

March 20, 2017

Jessica Langer, Postcolonialism and Science Fiction

I’ve been trying this year to gather together all my writing that isn’t already on the blog and put it here for easy reference. This review appeared in Vector in 2012.

(This is always a mildly embarrassing exercise in seeing how much my writing has/hasn’t  matured in the last few years. Rereading this piece, I’m mostly a little alarmed that “this book does interesting things, but it does not do all the things” appears to be a recurring ending in my reviews of academic works; see also this review from 2014 in Strange Horizons. Is this just me, or do other people feel tempted to come to this conclusion on a regular basis?)

 

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In her introduction to Postcolonialism and Science Fiction Jessica Langer speaks of two major science fictional tropes that have been a part of the genre since its inception. She calls these “the stranger” and “the strange land”; the grotesque alien invader and the planet to be conquered and settled by Earth. That these tropes function in ways that closely Langer pocosfparallel the real world history of colonialism is not a big leap to make. Particularly when, as John Rieder notes in Colonialism and the History of Science Fiction (2008), many of the genre’s foundational texts were written when colonialism was at its height.

Science fiction, then, provides us with another way to talk about our alien others who may here become literally alien. When violent encounters with the alien “other” are so fundamental a part of the genre’s history, what forms would a postcolonial SF take and what strategies would it employ? These are the questions that Langer attempts to address.

Before any of this Langer must first arrive at a definition of science fiction; a contentious issue, as she admits. Though gesturing toward more rigorous definitions from Darko Suvin and Carl Freedman, she ultimately rejects them. This is in part because the Western narrative of scientific progress (all but synonymous with “science” in most definitions of the genre) has had an unhappy relationship with the history of colonialism. As she demonstrates in a later chapter, the discourse of science was often used to serve the interests of the colonial project, often by “proving” that other races were inferior or less evolved. Langer contends that a postcolonial science fiction needs to expand its definition of science and foreground indigenous systems of knowledge as being as valid as (and in some cases more sound than) Western scientific thought. She sees no contradiction in a science fiction that also contains elements of the fantastic and the spiritual. In the introduction Langer aligns herself with Ursula K. Le Guin’s almost anti-definition of SF. Le Guin believes that there is so much overlap between the genres “as to render any effort at exclusive definition useless.” Certainly the works discussed, including Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring (1998) and Vandana Singh’s Distances (2008), blur genre boundaries.

Discussing postcolonial literature in sweeping terms when most countries in the world might be considered postcolonial is a rather daunting prospect and Langer chooses to focus most of her attention on two specific contexts: those of Japan and Canada. She notes that postcolonial theory has often been constructed in terms of East versus West, with less attention paid to what she refers to as the “sites of trouble” that do not fit comfortably into this dichotomy. In Japan’s case, this complex relationship with colonialism comes from the fact that it too has a history of imperialism. The A-bomb, for Langer, “represents the collision of two imperialisms, Japanese and American,” and she focuses on the country’s conception of itself and its past since the Second World War. A section comparing various adaptations of Komatsu Sakyō’s Japan Sinks (1973) is particularly interesting here. In the case of Canada, Langer explores the postcoloniality of a settler colony. In a sense, the country is not really postcolonial since the colonisers have never left. Referring to works by Hopkinson, Eden Robinson and Larissa Lai, Langer considers both sorts of postcolonial subject–the immigrant and the First Nations peoples marginalised within the country.

A recurring concern is that of the critic Yamano Kōichi, who describes post-war Japanese SF as having “moved into a prefabricated house” (i.e. modelled itself entirely on American works in the genre). Any genre imposes certain limits upon those writing in it but SF’s historical link with empire makes the question of a postcolonial form of SF particularly hard to answer. Postcolonial writers can (and do) engage directly with the more problematic tropes but they will face, as Audre Lorde might put it, the difficulty of trying to bring down the master’s house with the master’s tools. This is true even of the most potentially radical form of SF that the book discusses: the online role-playing game.

The chapter on race and identity in the virtual world is the book’s most engaging. Colonialism at first may seem impossible in a limitless cyberspace which elides such physical markers of difference as race and gender. Even though the emergence of the avatar has led to a “re-embodiment” of online presentation, a player still chooses how she presents herself. Langer quotes Maria Fernadez’s assertion that players of MMORPGs “are authors not only of the text but of themselves.” Langer focuses on World of Warcraft which she reads as SF in part because of the presence in the game of a technologically advanced alien race. Her contention is that the in-game conflict between the Alliance and the Horde structures itself in terms of the familiar/other, civilised/savage, centre/periphery divide. Too much of this chapter is given over to a catalogue of the races within the game and the human cultural groups they represent and yet the chapter also manages to discuss the uses of cultural stereotyping and the politics of the virtual minstrelsy involved in playing as “the other.” (For a discussion that contains multiple iterations of the word “Bhabhaian” this is amazingly accessible.) Langer speaks of the potential for radical change in the game if players actively work counter to the politics of the framework, but I think she may be a little too optimistic. Earlier in the chapter she cites Lisa Nakamura’s criticism in Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity and Identity on the Internet (2002) that virtual identities limit our choices of how we present ourselves by “making only certain modes of presentation available” and surely this is equally applicable to attempts to radicalise World of Warcraft.

The vastness of the subject matter means that there is very little space devoted to individual texts. In some cases this is not a problem–the sections on Ian McDonald’s River of Gods (2004) are particularly enlightening–but other works, like Saladin Ahmed’s “The Faithful Soldier, Prompted” (2010), suffer. Yet it’s hard to see how this could have been avoided. There is relatively little scholarship in this area of science fiction studies, but there’s time enough for works with a narrower, yet deeper focus. For now, Langer’s book is a good place to start.

March 10, 2017

Bulletpoints: The Great Wall

You knew I wasn’t going to let something this silly and this spectacular pass.

 

  • I’m fascinated by how this film negotiates its multiple audiences and contexts. I’ve (you may have heard!) spent a lot of time with adventure narratives, the genre in which where a white man travels into the unknown East, gets embroiled in a native battle and proves himself the most capable person there, probably romances a hot local girl, and eventually returns to his homeland wiser and better, having done important character development out over there. The Great Wall is this story all over again. It’s also a story about gormless foreigners who show up and gape at everything. It’s more the former, because William (Damon) is the character through whose eyes we see most of the action.
  • We also see some stuff from the perspective of his companion Tovar (Pedro Pascal, a joy forever). There are … two? scenes that I can think of (maybe three if you count one very brief moment) where we see the Chinese characters doing anything without a European observer.
  • (I don’t know enough [or indeed anything] about Chinese cinema’s conventions for representing Europeans in cinema, or whether such conventions are in fact established, so I’m probably missing a lot)
  • Damon’s William is taken out onto the wall by Jing Tian’s Commander Lin. William has already seen Lin and the rest of her Crane Troops bungee jump harnessed from the wall (I know), armed with spears, in order to attack the invading army. Lin invites him to try the harness, even as one of the other women asks if they’ll be able to pull someone so heavy back up (we can see the English subtitles; William can’t). Lin “translates” her companion’s words as something complimentary and completely false; William grins fatuously. The audience giggles, of course this arrogant man thinks everyone’s saying nice things about him. Then: “I don’t think that’s what she said,” says William, still grinning, and we’re wrongfooted, suddenly we’re being laughed at (or, I suppose, have switched allegiance, depending on who the audience is and who they’re already more able to identify with).
  • William refuses to do the bungee jumping thing; Lin berates him for lacking (a word she translates as) faith, a quality which is important for working with other people (and raises the possibility that the Crane troops’ training is a series of corporate trust-building exercises). Later in the film, however, he does risk his life and jump off the wall (ziplining down a chain, so not quite the same extreme sport). When asked why, he throws Lin’s word back at her.
  • Or does he? The subtitles don’t suggest that there’s anything weird going on. I don’t have any faith in my recollection of the sound of a word heard only a couple of times in a language I don’t know to have a clear opinion here–and the two characters obviously have very different accents. But on one viewing I imagined William’s pronunciation sounded off enough to be something else entirely, and if that had been the case (it was probably not!) the film’s choice not to draw attention to it and to have Lin hear it with a straight face would be an interesting one–essentially putting the anglophone viewer in the position that we thought William was occupying in the earlier scene. Even if William has got the word broadly correct, given the number of cinematic traditions in which foreigners mangle language with their funny accents this scene feels notable for … not doing that? (Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Lagaan.)

 

cloaks

  • I’ve seen “silkpunk” used to describe China-influenced (usually partly-Western) fantasy, and I have various quibbles with the term. However, this film really does have cause to claim the genre, if it wants it. It begins with Damon and Pedro Pascal’s characters, William and Tovar, on their way to attempt to trade (or steal) “black powder”–though they’re not, as far as I can tell, travelling along any of the silk routes there’s probably still a valid connection to be made re. trade, and it’s as traders that they first appear before the Chinese army. There’s a moment, late in the film, where the invading army are chased via the still-imperfect technology of (silk, presumably) hot air balloons. More than this, though, it’s a film filled with people in lightweight silk cloaks. Now, I’m aware that silk moves differently to the fantasy cloaks you see flapping dismally about in Northern Europe analogues–perhaps it’s because some of said Europeans were present, still in their sad thick cloaks, that I was constantly aware of that difference in movement.
  • I didn’t really know how to date this film, in part because it’s Not My Period, and in part because I suspect its own relationship to chronology is somewhat suspect. Better informed reviews have said it’s set during a version of the Song dynasty– possibly basing this conclusion on the fact that the capital city here is Bianliang and/or the widespread use of gunpowder (you can tell I’m getting all this off wikipedia, can’t you). Matters in Europe seem a bit more murky; William appears to have fought for “Harold versus the Danes” (cue comedy sound effect from a Danish friend to whom I subjected this), against the Franks, but also “for Spain”, which last suggests a rather 19th century understanding of European nationhood. (This is not the only oddly anachronistic thing about these characters–they also appear to have maps you can actually navigate with.) I enjoy this, in a way, because it feels like a way of treating European history with the cavalier, no research required, attitude that is so frequently applied to the rest of the world.
  • The plot: our protagonist and his companions, gormless, as I say, but good at fighting, are off Eastwards to find some of this magical black powder of which they have heard rumour. As they camp one night, a monster of some sort attacks them. They manage to sever an arm–it’s green and scaly. Some days later, they arrive at a (the) Great Wall, where they are imprisoned, and where everyone is alarmed to see the severed arm. It turns out a swarm* of giant telepathic lizards has been attacking North China every 60 years for the last two millennia. The current army has been preparing for this attack for decades, and the wall itself has been an integral part of its defence. William and Tovar have to decide whether to join this army and fight off the threat or steal all the gunpowder they can and get rich in Europe.
  • *We will be discussing my use of “swarm”.
  • Technology on the wall includes: hydraulic lifts, giant earhorns, giant scissors built into the walls.
  • After the first battle, the two Europeans arrive in the hall where lunch is being served freshly bathed, shaved and dressed. The entire room applauds–it’s not clear whether for the men’s prowess in battle or because their guests have discovered hygiene and should be encouraged to continue along this path.
  • At one point during the battle, Tovar (who is from Spain) uses a red cloak like a bullfighter to distract one of the taotei.
  • So, swarms. Early in the film we see the taotei dragging with them the corpses of their fallen companions as they retreat. My first thought, obviously, is “oh right, sentient beings with social structures and bonds.”And perhaps they do have these things. But very soon we learn that the whole army communicates telepathically with its queen, and to kill the queen is to immobilise the whole army. The taotei therefore are presented to us as a vast number of ancillaries to one queen, even though when severed from the link with her they seem to still be alive. I was feeling dubious about this presentation of vast numbers of people as undifferentiated hordes, and then saw that Max Brooks had been credited with some of the writing, and ah, right. Zombies.
  • So: monsters, opportunities for mass slaughter, and the sense that one isn’t killing an independently sentient thing. (Good monsters, though.)
  • Apparently the kingdom has been keeping several centuries of scholarship about the taotei–the scroll which they consult, we’re told, is 900 years old. This is pleasing.
  • The scroll adds further weight to a hypothesis–that magnets affect lizard telepathy. It’s not clear why they’ve waited centuries to try this out. But it’s a useful reminder that of course the writers of the scroll knew what magnets were, because otherwise they’re only mentioned in the context of William’s compassmaking skills. (He has maps, so a mere compass isn’t that impressive.)
    • My standards have been driven absurdly low, but I was pleased that no one in the film seemed in any way surprised when Commander Lin is put in charge of the Nameless Order, following the death of General Shao. I’m not sure how I feel about the movie’s more general treatment of gender–there are women in the army, and no one but Tovar seems particularly surprised to see them there, but they work only in the Crane troops (as killer trapeze artists/bungee jumpers) or as the drummers who communicate military commands along the wall. Only General Lin gets any actual speaking time, as far as I can remember, (apart from the one fellow soldier who speculates about William’s weight) and none of the other women are invited to the important meetings where decisions are made. Lin’s breastplate is, of course, the only one of the commanders’ to be breast-shaped. And yet, and yet. We’re left with the possibility of reading her relationship with William as entirely platonic (only Tovar’s reactions make it otherwise, and frankly I’m more interested in shipping Tovar/William), she’s a good fighter because she’s trained to be, she takes the final shot because she’s best qualified to do so.

great wall boob armour

  • The crane troop seems to be all women, and it’s implied that this is because they’re lighter than men on average. The women who spread information via drums are probably not subjected to this restriction, and it’s nice to know that the film leaves a niche for fat girls and it involves hitting things and making a loud noise.

 

March 4, 2017

February Reading

I didn’t read very much in February. I spent the first week attempting to read or reread all of Frances Hardinge’s work for this, but for most of the month reading has felt impossible and I’ve only gotten through two books (both short, both kidlit, one of which I’d read before). Still, these are them:

 

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Jo To The Rescue: I don’t know that this should count as a book read in 2017, since I probably read it sometime around 1995. My copy (the same Armada edition I now have, with this technically accurate yet otherwise unattractive cover–pay particular attention to the face Margot Maynard (the child with red hair) is making) was lost in a house move at some point and I never found another, even as I managed to gradually re-build my collection of Brent-Dyer books. Recently a friend was selling some of hers, and I swooped in and demanded this one. Twentyish years on I like the holiday setting, in large part because it’s nice to see Frieda, Simone and Marie just hanging out and being adults together. I’m concerned by how amused everyone is about food-wastage (there’s still a war and presumably war rationing on; why is it hilarious that Joey burnt the eggs and spilt the milk and threw bacon at a burglar?). I’m also concerned by the ethics of doctor-patient relationships, and “I’ll introduce you to my pretty sister” as a method for reforming criminal harassers. In short: I have several concerns.

 

Catherine Johnson, Sawbones: I read this in preparation for reading Blade and Bone, Johnson’s most recent novel (and sequel to this). Sawbones is set (mainly) in late eighteenth century London, with a young apprentice surgeon as its protagonist. It’s a setting that you can do a lot with, and Johnson does–there are bodysnatchers and medical history and debates about ethics and reason (and whether stealing people’s bodies to dissect for Science! is okay) and that really satisfying sense of the interconnectedness of the world that you get from some historical fiction that takes the age of empire as its setting. Loveday, along with the mystery that drives it all, has links with the Ottoman empire; Ezra himself is mixed-race and from Jamaica; the girl he has a crush on has family connections with Holland–these (except the first) seem like relatively minor elements of the plot, but their presence changes the flavour of the narrative in what feel to me like crucial ways. Without being About empire, or About slavery, or About race, or About social history in general, it makes them crucial to its setting; the reader isn’t allowed Georgian London and coffeeshops and Ottoman intrigue unless they’re willing to also take slavery and dissected stolen corpses and empire. There’s a sense, as well, of young adults as actively participating in the intellectual life of their particular historical moment; and Ezra and Anna, his sort-of-girlfriend, have fundamental philosophical disagreements. Too often characters in children’s literature and YA seem to start from a position of political unawareness, which might make for an easy coming of age plot (character discovers injustice, gains knowledge, grows) but it serves to position that initial lack of engagement as normal. Sawbones doesn’t do that, and it doesn’t treat these characters as exceptional for their interest in the world.

Having said all of which, it seems a bit churlish to complain that the plot is rather lightweight and the characters (other than Ezra himself) rather thin, but those things are also true. I’m willing to forgive the book these things because it does so much that I like historical fiction to do (and because the blurb for the next book has the line “Ezra is not persuaded by the controversial theories of his French colleagues”), and I’m quite looking forward to the next.

March 2, 2017

Shalini Srinivasan, Gangamma’s Gharial

gangamma (I spent a good hour or so of today trying to find and link to a completely charming short story by Srinivasan that I’m sure I didn’t imagine. There’s a yali in it. If anyone reading this remembers where it was published and/or can find a link, I would be very happy to read it again.)

There’s a vast, overarching conflict in the background of Gangamma’s Gharial of which we see only a fraction. “A long time ago”, a conflict between a small group of twelve yakshas and the rest of their more ascetic community led to a confrontation on a certain hillside. The twelve were defeated, but achieved at least one of their objects–the blue lotuses that they had cultivated in their palace outside time now had a place to grow. The local landscape suffered somewhat, as did the nearby village. The only part-witness to what had happened was a small girl, now left alone in the world. Clutching an apple seed that she has found at the scene of these events, the small girl travels north, to find it a suitable climate in which to grow. Centuries later, the hillside in question has morphed into the temple town of Giripuram, known for its temple (sacred to twelve gardener gods), and the Giripuram tank which is the only place in the world where these blue lotuses grow.

Other places have other blue lotuses but the finicky and snooty blue lotus of Giripuram grew only in the small Giripuram tank. It was a small bluey-purply lotus with a spicy-sweet smell of cinnamon and pine. It was said that its scent could drive away any grief or sorrow–temporarily, of course, for even magical flowers can only do so much. Just three Giripuram gardeners–three people in the entire world–could grow it.

Gangamma, an old woman who grows flowers to sell, is one of these three gardeners. In mysterious circumstances one morning she comes into the possession of an earring, shaped like a gharial and bearing a suspicious resemblance to a piece of jewellery that we, through the eyes of a young girl over a thousand years ago, have already seen tumbling into the lake. The gharial turns out to have some unexpected powers–when worn, it can instantly transport the wearer anywhere they wish to go. It can, however, only travel to a particular place once–great for travelling, not so good for getting back. Gangamma’s first trip is to the mountains in the north, where it’s considerably colder–and where a young girl, feared by the locals because rumour has it that she’s immortal, tends an apple tree with only the tree itself and a friendly chough for companions. Attempting, in an impulsive moment, to steal the tree and take it back to Giripuram, she finds herself transporting all three, and saddled with a new assistant gardener. “Ondu” (the girl will not give Gangamma her real name) is annoyed at her kidnapping and rude to Gangamma’s friends and colleagues, but she does have a way with flowers.

There are, as I imply above, two stories here. The one that we see most of is this smaller, more domestic one: of gardeners and found families and local community and rivalries. Gangamma and Ondu work well together, despite their major differences–Ondu likes wild flowers, Gangamma likes masala in her dosai–in large part because Ondu is openly rude to all the people Gangamma wants to be rude to (quick, someone do a reading of Ondu as the embodiment of Gangamma’s repressed desires). It’s good; it’s comic and full of sudden, clever observations and broadly-drawn but recognisable characters. (“She had forgotten how annoying Kempu was until you knew him well enough to like him despite it.”)

But there’s also the bigger plot–the one where yakshas purify themselves until they turn into diamonds, where there are palaces under the North Pole, where it’s possible to travel to other planets (or at least moons of planets–Gangamma and the Gharial spend a while hanging out on Ganymede when things on earth get particularly bad). The yaksha plot is correspondingly more elevated and tragic. Jayanti, the yaksha of whom we see the most, has deeply conflicted loyalties, particularly with regard to her brother, one of the twelve rebels and now existing in some residual form in Ondu’s chough. There’s a lot to play with here–the idea that Ondu has been living parasitically off her friends, to what extent the yakshas’ presence in these objects (trees, birds, jewellery) is really them–is the gharial less far gone than Jayant and Mahendra just because it happens to be able to speak? Are all yakshas as brahmanical as the ones we see here, or is this not true of the more liberal groups of yakshas whom the gharial mentions?

I’m a big fan of the ‘small people getting caught up in forces bigger than they can control’ plot, and the shift between the yakshas and the humans (and whatever Ondu has become) works really well for that smaller scale story. I like the reminder that Giripuram–its landscape, its temples, its lotuses, its entire ecosystem–is a mere side-effect of inter-yaksha rivalries across millennia. On the other hand, the deliberate decision to focus on the small scale story works best when we know what those larger forces are. By the end of Gangamma’s Gharial we know about as much as Gangamma and Ondu (which is to say, not very much) and perhaps that’s the point. But it doesn’t feel like the point–it feels like the book could have sustained several chapters of yaksha politics and weird bodies and cloud espionage.

I’m sort of tempted here to compare it to Srinivasan’s previous book, Vanamala and the Cephalopod. Vanamala‘s ending gestures at the possibility of lots more story to come, and there’s a sense throughout of narratives that are big and sweeping but are also tangential to this story–but the book itself still feels complete.

And yet I think I prefer Gangamma’s Gharial precisely for its ambitious messiness and the way in which it spreads its tendrils in several directions at once. (This may be entirely because I haven’t read Vanamala in a couple of years, so please consider this opinion unfixed. It may also be because I share Ondu’s dosai preferences.) Ideally, of course, it’d turn out that Srinivasan is planning several books through which we’ll gradually be able to piece together a sort of superstructure, but even if not, there’s a lot here that I like very much.

 

February 2, 2017

scarce a rift to be seen in the war-clouds that obscure the day

My access to O. Douglas/ Anna Masterton Buchan has been restricted to what’s in the public domain, and so I’d only read three of her books before. The impression I’ve had of her based on these, and seeing other people discuss her (see also), is of a sort of Scottish L.M. Montgomery. Recently, however, I ended up reading The Setons, about a vicar’s daughter and her family, and members of her father’s church in Glasgow. It is exactly what you expect it to be–the Setons are bookish and generous and religious and Not Vulgar; Elizabeth is beautiful and natural and has a nice singing voice; a young man from London visits and is charmed and falls in love. It’s funny, and comforting, and utterly predictable. Then, just as we’re nearing the end, there’s this:

 

You know, of course, Gentle Reader, that there can be no end to this little chronicle?

You know that when a story begins in 1913, 1914 will follow, and that in that year certainty came to an end, plans ceased to come to fruition—that, in fact, the lives of all of us cracked across.

Personally, I detest tales that end in the air. I like all the strings gathered up tidily in the last chapter and tied neatly into nuptial knots; so I should have liked to be able to tell you that Elizabeth became a “grateful” wife, and that she and Arthur Townshend lived happily and, in fairy-tale parlance, never drank out of an empty cup; and that Stewart Stevenson ceased to think of Elizabeth (whom he never really approved of) and fell in love with Jessie Thomson, and married her one fine day in “Seton’s kirk,” and that all Jessie’s aspirations after refinement and late dinner were amply fulfilled.

But, alas! as I write (May 1917) the guns still boom continuously out there in France, and there is scarce a rift to be seen in the war-clouds that obscure the day.

 

The Setons is Douglas/Buchan’s second novel, and she’ll go on, after the war, to write more of the sort of books I associate her with, their strings “gathered up tidily” and happily (in nuptial knots)–reading her years later and out of order, as I’m doing, imposes a false chronology, and perhaps makes this departure from a pattern she hasn’t even set yet seem a bigger deal than it is. And the book will go on to in some measure gather up those strings in any case–characters we’ve known and liked are reported on, and some of them are reported dead. There’s some form of closure, because there has to be, even if the closing image of the book is a family praying before sending another young man off to war. the-seton

Chronology feels significant here– if that “You know, Gentle Reader” is addressed to me, then yes I do know. A century later not only am I aware of the dates of the war, but I’m used to reading fiction that treats the period leading up to it as the last golden summer, I’m used to foreshadowing; from the moment a character in The Setons casually reveals that he’s living in the winter of 1913 I’m on my guard. But I also know when the war ends–my version of this story isn’t “in the air”. The gentle readers of 1917 may not yet be used to having the summer of three years ago turned into myth, or to reading clues to it into their literature; their relationship to the thing that is actually happening to/around them is probably very different. A few years ago I wrote of Penny Plain that the effects of the war were all over the book. But that book too is written after the war. In The Setons the war isn’t merely a tragic event but a genuine shock that tears through the book itself. We know what sort of book this is–until it isn’t. In 1917, with scarce a rift to be seen in the war-clouds etc., the shape of this narrative is impossible. At particular moments, particular sorts of stories become unthinkable.

We know this, we all did a Modernism module at some point. I don’t know, though, that I’ve ever felt it this cataclysmic within the text. I don’t know what I make of the fact that by 1920 (when Penny Plain is written) for Douglas this story has become possible again, and I don’t know if it’s possible to find comfort in that fact.