Archive for ‘cephalopods’

May 4, 2012

Sheri S Tepper, The Waters Rising

I wanted to like The Waters Rising. Tepper’s book had been dismissed by practically everyone who had talked about it at all; I’d have liked to be the one to discover some brilliant, redeeming reading of the text, and one that would cause its inclusion in the Clarke award shortlist* to make sense to me.

Dan Hartland and Maureen Kincaid Speller have both reviewed the book in the past week – I share most of their opinions about the book’s flaws. I did occasionally wonder if the theme of the book had something to do with free will; Xulai and Abasio both struggle in the later parts of the book with the idea that their lives and futures have been manipulated in such a way as to give them very little choice. And in one of the scraps of the world’s history that we gather, it is discovered that a large portion of the population was wiped out by machines able to find and eliminate people who were thinking the wrong thoughts. Charles Stross suggests in a recent post that his Rule 34 (also on the Clarke shortlist) is in part about a world where, among other things, ” our notion of free will turns out to have hollow foundations”. It’s just possible that Tepper planned to do something along those lines. If so, it would not change the fact that the book is directionless, bizarre, and flaps around for ages before suddenly cramming all manner of lunacy into its final quarter.

But what I really want to think about is Dan Hartland’s comment about feeling forced to read a text as satire. While reading the book I found myself thinking (or tagging bits of text with) “you’re joking” so many times that I had to eventually consider the possibility. Dan concludes that the novel as a whole is too incoherent to allow for a reading as sustained satire, but I can’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that the point of this book is an author trying out what she can get away with.

“In order to allay suspicion, I am about to sing something pastoral and suggestive of bucolic innocence.”

There’s nothing particularly notable about the prose, except that the human-horse interactions (and human-chipmunk interactions) are rather too Narnia. What is interesting though, is the text’s approach to providing information – the shifts in perspective from one character to another seem designed to conceal rather than reveal information. The result of this is a situation in which it is obvious to the reader that some form of manipulation is happening, and that the book knows far more than it’s willing to tell just yet. I found myself admiring the sheer audacity of it.

So if this blatant teasing with information is one of the things Tepper is trying to get away with, what are the others? There’s the talking horse which so upset Christopher Priest; presumably because talking animals traditionally fit better with fantasy than science fiction. But there is a reasonably scientific (by the rather elastic values of science that most SF employs) explanation for this in-text. Plus, as Farah Mendlesohn says, “any sufficiently dilapidated far future planet is indistinguishable from fantasy”. Sometimes the far future planet in question is the Earth. (The “any sufficiently advanced technology” maxim might equally be used to excuse the fantastic elements that are not explained – souls that glow and shapeshifting animals among them). Ultimately the strongest argument I can make against the text’s being science fiction is the one Adam Roberts makes here - its flavour is not sfnal. (And once again I’m reminded that applying rasa theory to the Western concept of genre might be rewarding; I wonder if Roberts is familiar with it?) And – keeping in mind that intent means very little – I wonder how much of this determined non-SFnality, in a book about global warming and genetic alteration, was deliberate.

‘Here, madam, you seem a pleasant cephalopod, please accept this with my compliments.’ 

The Sea King is another element of the book that makes me wonder. Because SFF has done giant squid so often by now, that each new giant squid seems as much or more comment on the genre than a plot element in its own right.

Then there are things like this:

“Oh, mares,” said Blue**, shaking his head. “They always have to be whinnied into it. Or . . . subdued.”

“Why, Blue,” cried Abasio in an outraged voice. “That’s rape.”

Blue snorted. “I have long observed that human people do not care what they do in front of livestock, and believe me, what some humans do during mating makes horses look absolutely . . . gentle by comparison.” He stalked away and stood, front legs crossed, nose up, facing the sea.

“Isn’t Abasio your friend?” the Sea King asked him.

“Friends do not call their friends rapists,” said the horse without turning around.

 

It seems incredible to me that I’m supposed to take this seriously. I must assume I’m not.

 

None of this necessarily adds up to any sort of unified reading of the text as parodic; but then, as I said above, I don’t think it’s supposed to be. But I think we might be being trolled, and on the whole I’d feel more kindly towards the book if this were the case.

 

 

 

*The award finally went to Jane Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb, a book I thought was excellent. It’s nice to be proved right.

** the talking horse

 

December 18, 2011

Joan Aiken, The Monkey’s Wedding

“The Monkey’s Wedding” is a phrase I’d never heard before, but apparently it exists in multiple languages to describe one of my favourite things in the world. “Sunshine viewed through rain, or the rain seen through the sun’s rays”, according to Aiken. Or sunshower, but I tend, MadeleineBassetlike, to call it “rainbow weather” and show an alarming tendency to skip.

My short piece on Aiken’s collection for last week’s Left of Cool was extracted from this slightly longer one.

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Joan Aiken‘s The Last Slice of Rainbow collection was probably the first book I borrowed and never gave back. People who own a lot of books probably know that this happens all the time. There are some you ‘forgot’ you’d taken; some missing from your own shelves because they were lent out and never returned. They may leave permanent gaps, or you might buy (and lose) them again. Some books never stay long. Some you will never allow out of the room except in case of a fire. Eventually you set your own boundaries, but there’s always the sense that the ownership of books is a little amorphous. Aiken was my first crime, but she also taught me this.

She taught me another thing too; a kind of alienation from the text that is (I think) what made me a fan of the sorts of books that I love. Her stories take for granted the most uncanny events, treating them as mere background for human drama and all the awkward, funny ways in which we exist around one another. Aiken is where I begin; she may not have taught me to read (that was Pat Posner’s Bashful the Clumsy Bear) but she made me a reader. She’d have made me a writer too, if I could have been – of all the writers I love, it’s Aiken (and Garner, who I discovered later) I’ve most wished to imitate.

Aiken is best known for her children’s books, particularly the brilliant alt-historical sequence that begins with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. But she wrote psychological thrillers, ghost stories, even Jane Austen continuations and companion novels..

Since her death in 2004, two new collections of her work have been published. The first, The Serial Garden, collected all of her Armitage family stories. The second was a collection of short stories for adults, titled The Monkey’s Wedding. Both are a source of joy to me; every new Aiken book is a gift.

The Monkey’s Wedding starts with “A Mermaid Too Many”, a story in which a sailor’s attempts to sell or give away a mermaid he has brought home (his partner has refused to live in the same house as it) are foregrounded so that the fact that the mermaid even exists is treated as commonplace. “The Sale of Midsummer” involves a village that is rumoured only to exist for three days of the year, and that is filled with interlocking and contradictory stories about the beginnings of this myth. In “Water of Youth”, a single bottle of this mysterious liquid changes the lives of a number of people connected to the town.

Some stories are outrightly supernatural, like “Reading in Bed”, which involves a visit from the Devil, and “Second Thoughts” in which a priest is reincarnated as a cat, and proceeds to indulge in all the sins his previous career prevented. “The Magnesia Tree” is a horror story about the relationship between a writer and a tree, made horrible by the unobtrusive way in which the victim leaves the story. “Wee Robin” involves a not-very-scary ghost.

“Hair” is another horror story but not necessarily a supernatural one, about the relationship between the matriarch of a family and her various dependants. Even where Aiken’s stories contain no element of the fantastic al, they  seem that way. The family in “Harp Music” live in a bus in a field; the protagonist of “Octopi in the Sky” hallucinates cephalopods. The title character of “Girl in a Whirl” rides bikes across tightropes. In “The Fluttering Thing” a man given a trapped genie and the power to demand a wish a day chooses instead to release it out of human decency. The seller of the water of youth wants to buy his wife a new grand piano, for “though we stood the legs of her Otway in four pans of kerosene, the termites ate it away until nothing remained but the keys”.

In Aiken stories, the most momentuous events are treated in the most deadpan of ways. “Honeymarooned” opens with a woman being swept off a ship by a wave and carried away without anyone noticing – the text explains this matter-of-factly, within a paragraph, before getting on with the story. Later in the same tale the characters greet with unconcern the imminent end of the human race (caused by an uprising of communist mice). A character’s nearly drowning to death in a vat of stout is a mere footnote to “Octopi in the Sky”. In “Wee Robin” a magic bathmat is “such an unsuitable gift for a four-year-old!” And stories  never go where you expect, and they end abruptly or not at all; there’s rarely a traditional arc or sense of resolution. “No moral to this story, you will be saying, and I am afraid it is true.”

If Aiken is noncommittal where wonders are concerned, her language can elevate the most mundane. “Back to his castle then, poor Mr Richards, to live out his final years with owls and ink, in an everlasting third act of spiderwebs” she says, of one unfortunate character. Of another, that “the reverend Paul’s saintliness had been somewhat blunted by the cathood which had been superimposed upon it.”

Aiken’s shifts between the strange and the mundane caught me when I was five or six and made me a reader for life. The Monkey’s Wedding is a fine introduction to her work – and may very well ensnare you forever.

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May 31, 2010

May Reading

My reading this month included a number of books I’d read before and quite a bit of fluff (these two mostly overlapped). In addition to the books mentioned here, I’m still dipping in and out of Helen Merrick’s wonderful book The Secret Feminist Cabal. I’ve also just gotten hold of Gwyneth Jones’ Imagination/Space, also published by Aqueduct (here’s a good review). And I’m in the middle of a reread of Mark Charan Newton’s Nights of Villjamur. I’ll be reading City of Ruin when I’m done. Other books I’m hoping to finish in June include Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist (I started it today and love it so far) and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, which I first heard of a few months ago when Batuman wrote this gorgeous piece for the Chronicle. Assuming that her writing is generally of this calibre, this looks like being a remarkable book.

And so on to the books (in no particular order).

G.V Desani – All About H. Hatterr: I started reading this in April. I loved it; it’s challenging and playful and generally wonderful. I wrote more about it here.

Jesse Bullington – The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart: I wanted to like this a lot more than I ended up doing. It’s incredibly smart, frequently very funny (the brothers’ theological debates in particular), and I absolutely love the cover art. And yet somehow it just did not click for me. I may be missing something obvious, since most reviews I’ve read of it have been overwhelmingly positive. I can’t pinpoint anything that the book did wrong (except maybe the cod academic framework which felt wholly unnecessary) so clearly we were just not meant to be. I will say this for Bullington, his writing is effective. He managed to make me feel rather queasy on two occasions. There’s one particularly unpleasant rape scene, and another scene that I do not wish to spoil for anyone, but between this and Paul Jessup’s “It Tasted Like the Sea” I may never eat fish again.

O. Douglas – Olivia in India: Someone on a mailing list that I read mentioned O. Douglas and I looked her up. I was rather surprised to find that she was John Buchan’s sister. A couple of her books were available on project Gutenberg, and I picked this one to start with. I was a bit wary of a book written in 1912 about an Englishwoman’s travels in India, but found myself charmed anyway. The book is a series of letters from a young woman (who is travelling to India to meet her brother) to an unnamed young man. The colonialism is inevitable, but for the time surprisingly not offensive. Olivia actually engages with India, which is rather nice. Occasionally the attempt to be charming and quirky gets a bit much, but on the whole this was very likeable indeed.

Rick Riordan – The Percy Jackson series: I finally watched the Percy Jackson movie and while it was pretty good I felt that the pacing was off and it was a lot less clever than the books. This made me reread all five books in the series as well as Percy Jackson: The Demigod Files, a slimmer volume containing three short stories and some mock interviews of characters in the series. The series is fantastic; The Demigod Files is insubstantial.

Georgette Heyer – Frederica: I read Heyer when I’m tired, which is why some of her stuff seems to pop up here every month or so. Frederica is not her best, but it is quite good and has a hot air balloon and steam engines. Which makes it practically steampunk, right? Right?

Lisa Kleypas – Suddenly You: This was recommended by a friend who thought I would enjoy a Victorian publishing romance. It was nice and started off very well indeed. But I felt it threw out a number of lures for places that the story could possibly go, and then went nowhere. It’s a little unfair to judge a romance novel for not being more than a romance novel so I can’t really blame it for failing to take up the publishing angle, or the child abuse angle, or… (there were quite a few such angles). But I would have liked a better structured plot, at least.

China Miéville - Kraken: My review is here. My reaction was largely positive, but with a few caveats. Watching Miéville having fun and being a geek was nice.

Mark Mellon – Napoleon Concerto: I’m supposed to review this for someone so I won’t say much here. This is an alternate history steampunk novel set in Napoleonic France. I’ll be linking to my review when it is up.

Nick Mamatas – Under My Roof: I am a bit of a Mamatas fangirl, for various reasons. This probably means that I am biased, but I loved this book to pieces. It’s a hilarious, slim book about a telepathic 12 year old whose father has built his own nuclear weapon (it’s inside a garden gnome on the lawn) and declared independence from the United States. It’s very smart and very political and entirely lovable and I’m surprised more people have not read it.

Julia Quinn – The Bridgerton Series: I did not reread all of the Bridgerton books this month. I read four; The Viscount Who Loved Me, An Offer from a Gentleman, Romancing Mr. Bridgerton and To Sir Philip with Love. There’s not much to say about these – none of them was a particularly strenuous intellectual exercise. But I love Quinn and I’m really looking forward to Ten Things I Love About You (review here).

Jon Courtenay Grimwood – Pashazade: Another alternate-history novel. Ashraf Bey arrives in Al Iskandriya and is immediately embroiled in a murder mystery. Fast paced and clever and massively entertaining. I suspect I’d need a second read to attempt any sort of critique (and I think there are aspects of it that could do with some examining) but I found it extremely enjoyable.

John Gardner – Grendel: I recently confessed on twitter that I had not read this, though I’d meant to for a while. The recommendations of a couple of people who had read it convinced me not to put it off any longer. I’m glad, it’s stunning. There’s not enough space here for anything like a review – and since I finished it only a couple of days ago I think I’d like some time to think about it and possibly return to Beowulf - but it’s a glorious book.

Georgette Heyer – Lady of Quality and Black Sheep: These two books are the same book: discuss.

May 29, 2010

Squid pro quo

Today’s Indian Express has a short review I wrote of China Mieville’s Kraken. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but thought it was a bit flabby and relied too much on its references to pop and geek culture. I could not resist using the Express’ gloriously bad pun in the title. (The repetition in that last paragraph is all my fault).

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The main attraction for visitors to London’s Darwin Centre is a perfectly preserved giant squid, Architheusis dux (Archie to those who work there). Then one day it disappears, tank and all, without a trace, and Billy Harrow, a museum curator, finds himself the target of a number of very strange people. With this, the reader and Billy are thrown into an alternative London, replete with squid-worshipping cults, rival gangs (one of them ruled by a terrifying sentient tattoo) and unionising animals; where a special branch of the police force exists to control supernatural happenings. It’s a London where one can literally read the entrails of the city to divine the future. And everyone seems to think that the world is about to end.

China Miéville was recently awarded an Arthur C. Clarke award for his 2009 novel The City & the City, making him the only author ever to have won the award three times. His latest book, Kraken, is a comic, allusive adventure story set in London. This is far removed from the dense, baroque language of Miéville’s earlier books. If anything, it is closest in style to his young adult novel Un Lun Dun. This does not, however, mean that it’s an easy read. Like any Mieville book, Kraken is brimming with ideas, about (among other things) groups and fandom and cities and religion and belief. It’s also Mieville’s least restrained work yet.

The book reads as a loving tribute to geekdom, a gleeful tour of all that growing up as a science fiction fan entails. The fascination with cephalopods and tentacles has been a big part of geek culture for a while now, and is traceable back to the pulp horror writer H.P Lovecraft. There are references in the text to other major writers who have influenced Miéville, including J.G Ballard and Michael Moorcock. There are a number of references to Star Trek: Wati, a disembodied revolutionary spirit, spends much of the novel communicating with the other characters by inhabiting an action figure of the original series’ Captain Kirk. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, another fantasy novel set in London, gets a nod in the form of Goss and Subby, two apparently immortal assassins who call to mind Gaiman’s Croup and Vandemar. There’s even an element of The X-Files in the interaction between Vardy and Collingwood, members of the special police.

Last year, Booker judge John Mullan dismissed the entire Science fiction genre as being “bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other”. Miéville has been critical of this extremely reductive (not to mention ignorant) view of the genre. Yet Mullan’s description seems a strangely apt description of the world Billy enters. It’s far too tempting to point to the parallels between the cult-filled underbelly of Kraken’s London and science fiction fantasy fandom itself. In part this is because the preoccupations of this world (giant squid! Atlantis!) are so fannish. Miéville makes the connection even stronger with the introduction of Simon Shaw, a character who is both a “Trekkie” and a part of the supernatural underground.

Far more than being a book about fans, though, this is a book for that “special kind of person”. If you grew up watching Star Trek, reading Moorcock, playing Dungeons and Dragons, Kraken is an utter delight.

But this may actually be the book’s biggest flaw. At times it appears more an act of redamancy towards the genre than an actual novel. Plot is occasionally sacrificed for the sake of a pun, or a clever allusion. The conclusion is clever but it is unnecessarily dragged out, to the point that we end up having multiple “final showdown” moments.

With a little more of the discipline and rigour that characterise some of Miéville’s other works, Kraken could have been brilliant. Yet a Mieville book is always worth reading. Kraken is the product of a fascinating mind at play, and is worth reading for that reason alone.

March 8, 2010

Miéville in India links

As most of the people who read this blog already know, China Miéville was in India last week (I think he’s here for most of this as well) as part of the British Council’s LitSutra programme. I’ve been enjoying the Litsutra blog over the last couple of days – it turns out that the people organizing this thing are also pretty good writers. Krish Raghav has a piece up on the Mint books blog about the Delhi event with Samit Basu. There was also an event at JNU the next day – unfortunately the people at JNU seemed to think they’d be getting a reading from Kraken and an interactive session, while the author had been told he was supposed to be giving them an academic paper. It all resolved itself quite happily; the reading was excellent (though some of us had heard it the night before) and the discussion of SF that followed was reasonably academic – I may refer back to it soon when I read Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia.

For me, though, the highlights of the whole thing were discovering that Miéville had read this blog (he recognised said nice things, I stood and looked horrified and wondered if I’d ever written anything here that I’d be embarrassed to say to his face) and, possibly more significantly, confirming for myself that he really was a Samuel Beckett person. For various reasons this was very important.

Incidentally, judging by the chapter I heard read out twice, Kraken is going to be brilliant.

November 3, 2009

Books what I

I’ve been reading stuff. Here’s some of what I have been reading.

Leviathan – Scott Westerfeld

Official review will be out in the New Indian Express at some point in the near future, but I loved this. I’m rather wishing I’d managed to get the edition with all the gears and suchlike on the cover, but the artwork really is phenomenally good, and Westerfeld is an amazing writer. I like his main characters (even more so on a reread) and from the hints given about the second book in this series, Behemoth, I suspect that it has been written entirely for my delectation. I cannot wait. Here’s the trailer, anyway. It’s rather amazing.

Unseen Academicals – Terry Pratchett

In recent years there has always been a new Terry Pratchett book on my birthday. This year’s seemed like it would be a good one: a return to the Discworld (after the rather awesome detour into Nation, his alternate history Victorian YA that came out last year), a return to the Wizards, who haven’t been heard of in a while, and some football. The Wizards are required for reasons of economy to field a football team – a task for which they are spectacularly unsuited, though the Librarian is an excellent goalkeeper. Luckily, Trevor Likely, son of legendary Dimwell captain Dave Likely, works at the University and is able to initiate them into the world of the Shove, where who you support (and how you show it) matters far more than the game itself, which most of them have never seen. Meanwhile, Trevor must also look after his friend Mr. Nutt who says he’s a goblin but is possibly Something Else altogether and looks suspiciously like Wayne Rooney on the cover. The Nutt plot is something of a return to the earlier Discworld books; Pratchett uses the character to take on an element of a classic work of fantasy (I’m trying very hard not to give the plot away). Unfortunately, while I agree entirely with the conclusions he seems to come to, it comes across as rather too earnest. Then there’s Glenda, who I ought to have all sorts of problems with – she’s fat and competent and has a secret weakness for romance novels, and when she gets her romance it’s with a character who no one else particularly wants. I love her anyway.

The Reef – Mark Charan Newton.

I’d been wanting to read this for a while, particularly since reading Newton‘s second book, Nights of Villjamur (which I really liked) this summer. I finally found it a couple of weeks ago in the secondhand section of Chapters and was unreasonably excited. The Reef is a coral reef that becomes the focus of a number of interconnecting plots involving scientists, terrorists and various forms of aquatic life including sirens, ichthyocentaurs, and (it’s not a spoiler if the cover illustration gives it away, is it?) a giant squid/kraken-monster. It’s obvious that Newton’s writing (and, I think, his gender politics but that’s another matter entirely) have matured considerably since he wrote this, the prose occasionally shifts from brilliant (luckily there’s plenty of that) to a bit awkward and it could have used more editing. However, in terms of ideas I found it richer and more ambitious than NOV. I’m not sure how far it’s supposed to be set in the same universe as his Legends of the Red Sun; elements (the Rumel, the random bits of old machinery lying around) from one seem to have made their way into the other. I’m hoping he returns to this setting at some point in the future (after the current series is finished with) – there’s a lot in it that is fascinating and that I’d love to see developed. In any case, I feel that the Legends of the Red Sun books would be vastly improved by the addition of a Squidbeast.

I am Scrooge: A Zombie Story for Christmas – Adam Roberts

Like most people, I’m a bit sick of zombies at this point. Adam Roberts’ Zombie infested version of Dickens’ Christmas Carol sounded like a good idea had I not been suffering from zombie overkill. But the preface (in which Roberts hopes that the idea behind the book will “thump upon the boarded-up windows of [the readers'] houses pleasantly, and no one wish to remake it as a major motion picture starring Will Smith”) sold me, and with such gems as “the churchman’s nose was bulbous and red, a fleshy appendage, but Marley bit into it as eagerly as if it had been a ripe strawberry” on the first page, I assumed this would be entertaining. And it really is, but I don’t think you could read it all at once. In small doses, well spaced out, the zombie jokes are funny and the illustrations (credited to one Zom Leech) are hilarious. Read at a stretch, though, Queen Victoria saying “we are not Zom-used” might drive anyone to commit violence.

Things We Are Not – (ed) Christopher Fletcher

I’m no good at reviewing anthologies of short stories by different authors. But this is a really good collection of queer short fiction. The title story, by Brandon Bell, is probably the best thing about the collection; working within a whole set of popcultural references that delighted me, Bell still manages a story that is not about these references. Eden Robins’ “Switch” was another story that stood out for me, with the sort of nonchalant weirdness that I actually associate more with the beginnings of speculative fiction novels. Perhaps this is why I was so annoyed when it ended. Then there’s “Reila’s Machine” by Therese Arkenberg and “The World in His Throat” by Lisa Shapter; good, classic science fiction – and “Pos-psi-bilities” by Jay Kozzi that is a sort of coming-of-age story with a comparatively slight Sfnal element. It’s a fantastic collection, it’s available here or on Amazon, and I think you ought to read it.

The Ask and the Answer – Patrick Ness

When I read Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go in January I was rushing between continents (it was something I bought in an airport and read on a plane) and as a result I don’t think I ever officially gushed about it here. But I did thrust it at a lot of people I met – as dystopian, science fictional, gender-aware (it won a Tiptree award earlier this year) YA literature it was exactly the sort of thing I was likely to love. The Ask and the Answer takes off from the rather cliffhanger-ish moment that ended the previous book. Todd and Viola, Ness’ protagonists, are separated, and set to work in different parts of the town. While Todd’s work lies among the Spackle, the original inhabitants of the planet, Viola becomes entangled with a terrorist group of sorts, that wishes to remove the truly sinister Mayor Prentiss from power. As Martin Lewis says in this review, this is not an adventure story, but a war novel. I’d forgotten just how relentless Ness is sometimes; I don’t know when I’m going to read this again because it is emotionally so exhausting. I don’t know where the third book (which I expect will be every bit as brilliant as the first two) will take the story, but I can’t imagine it’ll be anywhere pleasant.

What have you been reading?