Archive for ‘science fiction’

March 25, 2014

Her

Some weeks ago, just after I’d watched Her, I had some thoughts. A month later, I’m not entirely sure I can decipher them, and I’m glad as always that this bulletpointsing absolves me of having to have any sustained opinion of anything. Anyway.

  • Here is a story about someone who’s vulnerable, whose marriage has recently ended, and who finds companionship and eventually love with an artificially-intelligent operating system, until the AI grows beyond humans and goes away. The “someone” is Amy Adams, and hers isn’t the story Her chooses to focus on.
  • Her spends a lot of time working at uncreepifying the gender implications of its premise; by which I mean the woman who is bought and owned, who does not come with inconvenient things like crying and screaming and having a flawed physical body, and whose gradual independence becomes threatening; the man who owns her. And so we’re told of AI-human relationships where the AI “belongs” to someone else, we’re even told that Samantha is in several such relationships. It’s clearly important to the film that we know that this isn’t an exploitative relationship.And yet this is the story it chooses to tell, not the Amy Adams love story that happens in the gaps left by Theodore’s story, or any of those other romances between computer programmes and people who don’t own them.
  • And so, presumably, we’re meant to feel discomfort, and we’re meant to cringe when Theodore bursts out that Samantha is his. I’m not sure what Jonze is doing with that discomfort apart from just invoking it; look, look how problematic this is but also let us devote more time to this instagram-filtered manpain. The whole thing reminded me of (500) Days of Summer, another film that teeters awkwardly between acknowledging its protagonist’s creepy, damaging view of relationships and sympathising with him over how awful it is that the women he falls for don’t conform to said view.
  • The Amy Adams story would have been better.
  • Perhaps the most sfnal thing about this world (apart from, you know, all the AI romance) is Theodore’s job, with its implications. He’s a professional writer of other people’s personal letters; not in a sort of Cyrano de Bergerac way, but as part of a legitimate company. In a way this is merely a version of a job writing greeting card poems (and here’s another link with 500 Days of Summer; when will someone write that essay?) but it’s more than that. A sort of taken-for-granted willingness to outsource, to commodify one’s own emotions is something that the world of the film takes for granted. To admit that they are generic.It’s there in the “play me a melancholy song” scene that most reviews seem to have quoted, and in the fact that apparently Theodore can have his letters published without asking for permission from any of the people whom those letters were for or about. We learn at one point that Theodore has inserted his own observations into the letters (something about a woman’s teeth I think, though it’s been over a month since I saw it?) and they have become a part of a couple’s understanding of one another; presumably at least in part because some of their communication is through Theodore’s words. And Samantha takes that further; if emotions can be generic then there’s surely nothing surprising about her feeling the same thing for hundreds of people she talks to as well as Theodore. Which is of course the point where Theodore pushes back, demanding his own specialness.
  • Samantha’s thingness is never so clear as in that moment where the operating system cant be found.
  • The women in this world are all constantly feeling inadequate. In the case of Amy Adams’ “Amy” a partial cause is easy enough to find; her awful husband Charles keeps undercutting her and is generally horrible. In Theodore’s account of his own marriage he suggests that his ex-wife Katherine’s family were similar, and that she turned to him because he was different. We’re not told what motivates Isabella, the young woman who volunteers to be Samantha’s surrogate in sex with Theodore, but when he can’t go through with it she shuts herself away, blaming herself for not being good enough and apologising to Theodore and Samantha . And then there’s Olivia Wilde’s unnamed character*, who goes on a date with Theodore and is terrified that he won’t call her back. Perhaps I’m being shallow, but what is this dystopian future where people don’t call Olivia Wilde back?
  • The relationship flashbacks suggest that the real cause of the end of Theodore and Katherine’s marriage is that moustache.
  • The moustache distracted me throughout. It is terrible.
  • Onscreen bodies become crucially important to the background of a the film where one of the main characters doesn’t have one. There’s an early shot in which Theodore fantasises about a beautiful, shiny, airbrushed pregnant woman in a magazine. The ‘real’ bodies have pores and blotchy skin. Some of them (one minor character, a few people in the background) even have skin that isn’t white. Some of them are fat.
  • I watched Her with people who know and love science fiction. I suspect most people in the auditorium were less embedded in the genre; they didn’t laugh when we did. There are some wonderful moments; a dead philosopher is brought back to life by being rewritten, there’s a book club, there’s Samantha overturning Theodore’s world in the blandest of voices, expressing at the most mild surprise that he is surprised. Of course she’s evolving really quickly, of course she read that book in a fraction of a second, of course she’s talking to thousands of people at the same time as him. I’m not sure how many people were sitting there rubbing their hands together and gleefully waiting for the singularity while Joaquin Phoenix was crying onscreen. I think I may have looked a little heartless.
  • I think Her‘s ending might be the thing that makes it a better SF film than the more beautiful Under the Skin (the other inhuman! Scarlett Johansson film I have recently watched), but my dissatisfaction with that film is better saved for a post on it.

*She’s credited on imdb as “Blind Date”. (She comes out of this better than Evelyn Edwards, who gets to be “Mother Who Dated Pricks” and Steve Zissis who is “New Sweet Boyfriend Of” Edwards’ character.)

February 27, 2014

Two posts about Courtney Milan

I’ve said in the past that I like to think of the regency romance as being set in a sort of fantasy world where things like the slave trade and gross economic inequality don’t exist—because if they do, our protagonists are thoroughly implicated in them. Even if they’re the ‘nice’ ones who think that small poor children should not be forced up chimneys, or that one should be kind to one’s servants, or at least learn their names, or that the slave trade is maybe not that good (standards for ‘nice’ being pretty low here), it’s hard to think of them as sympathetic in any way. Romances that draw our attention to these social realities as part of their elucidation of their protagonists’ characters manage to annoy me far more than ones that don’t mention any of this.

Courtney Milan’s books, though, are in one sense set firmly in the past of the real world. Recently I’ve been reading her Victorian-England-set Brothers Sinister series—I cringe a bit (a lot) at this title, but at least Oliver, Sebastian and Robert (none of whom are actually brothers, though they are related) are left-handed. And also these books are kind of great.

It’s obvious that there’s research involved; specific parliamentary reform acts, medical and scientific developments, social history, all of these are placed at the centre of the various stories in ways that ought to jar with the genre-romance format, but usually don’t. There’s an amusing moment in the afterword to The Duchess War where Milan, describing the radicalisation of workers in 1860s Leicester, admits that they really did not need a pamphlet-writing duke to stir them up, since they were managing quite well on their own. Why is Robert there, then? Because romance novel. It’s a concession I’m willing to grant her (though unlike pretty much every other minor historical change she makes, it doesn’t make 1800s England a better place). Apart from stray moments like this, though, it’s fiction that is solidly grounded in the material reality of its time. More realist than most realist fiction then, despite its basis in a genre one of whose strengths is a frequent departure from reality.

But then there’s the science thing, and I think it might be the most important of all. A minor character in the first few books in the series is Sebastian Malheur, the most reviled scientist in England, a Darwin supporter and a scandalous discusser in public of the sex lives of plants. These minor references are more serious than they might at first seem. As Milan herself says in the afterword to The Duchess War, “[e]very piece of historical fiction alters history in at least some tiny regard”. But this is more than a minor change; putting a geneticist in the same time and place as Darwin (Milan’s drawing on a lot of Mendel’s work, as she explains) could have enormous consequences.

Then in The Countess Conspiracy (spoilers all over this, sorry) we discover that what has been presented as Sebastian’s work so far has been that of his friend Violet Waterfield, who was in no position to publish (or be read, or taken seriously) because she’s a woman. This particular book has Violet discovering the chromosome, considerably earlier than was done in our world. Milan has already suggested, as I say above, that the minor changes she makes in her universe could have larger consequences, and this one is pretty huge.

So that’s where we end the series (I think there is to be one more book, but I’m not sure how far into the future it takes us), with scientific knowledge considerably further advanced than it was at this stage in our own world’s history. And while I’m not convinced that this makes The Countess Conspiracy science fiction (it is definitely fiction about science), I’m willing to argue for it, and I’m pretty sure that any sequel to it would be at least alternate history. Can SF claim Courtney Milan? Probably.

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In The Heiress Effect, we are introduced to Anjan Bhattacharya, an Indian student in England. Particularly in the years since RaceFail, I’ve seen a lot of Writing The Other conversations in my various corners of the internet– why it’s important, how to do it, how to react to criticism of how one is doing it. I don’t know if Milan hangs out in the same parts of the internet as I do, but in many ways she’s done everything right; she’s read first-hand accounts of Indian students in 19th century Britain (including Gandhi’s, but she names a few less obvious ones at the end of the book), the 1857 war is namechecked*, there’s even an almost-reference to the Bengal Renaissance. Anjan isn’t only an angry freedom-fighter, though there’s plenty of anger there, he recognises that his own presence in England, studying law, requires a certain amount of complicity; his relationship with Britain is as tied up in his class position and family (and caste, though the word isn’t mentioned) as it is in the fact of being a brown man in 19th century England.

Here’s the thing, though. When Milan writes about, say, anxiety disorders, as she does with Oliver’s aunt Frederica, she doesn’t feel the need to have the character speechifying about it. I assume that this is in part because none of the characters is in a position to speechify; normally, when the books deal with historical fact that doesn’t commonly show up in romance novels there’s a note in the afterword. Anjan, on the other hand, is constantly explaining himself–to Emily he explains that brown people can have complex feelings towards their colonisers, that the British Empire is kind of bad, and that vegetarians exist; to her uncle Titus he explains that Indians don’t all force their wives to commit sati and that Hindus are generally monogamous. 19th Century English people had a number of fascinating ideas about Indians and I’m well aware of this, but underlying all of these authorial choices is what feels to me like an assumption that Indians in books still need to be explained, that their literary presence is an opportunity for a teaching moment. And I’ve read historical novels whose authors have clearly done no research at all into India (*cough Libba Bray cough*) and as long as that sort of thing is seen as normal and acceptable perhaps we do need to be explained (no wonder Anjan falls in love with the first person who bothers to learn to pronounce his name). And perhaps posts like this are proof that You People Will Never Be Satisfied. I’m not, though.

 

*I know Emily is very sheltered but the only way in which I can account for her not having heard of the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ at all is that her uncle is deliberately keeping the newspapers away from her. Which is plausible, I suppose, but it seems unnecessary unless as an excuse for Anjan to also explain that conflict; another teaching moment.

July 30, 2013

Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds

Backstory: I wrote 650-odd words about The Best of All Possible Worlds for my column this weekend (and you can read it here)- then, because I felt I’d spent so much time on the popculture-as-human-artefact aspect of it that I hadn’t talked about the stuff about the book that really annoyed me, expanded the piece with a rant of another 1000+ words. As you do. So here you go.

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Centuries from now, people will still be reading Shakespeare. I know this not because his work is so wonderful (though it is pretty amazing) as to be immortal, but because I have it on the best possible authority: Star Trek. The original series and the movies based upon it contain a number of references to the bard, including a rather wonderful one about reading him “in the original Klingon”

Shakespeare has survived in some form on Cygnus Beta, the planet on which most of the action of Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds takes place. Cygnus Beta is populated by peoples descended from four other planets, of which our own is one. Its popular cultural references are, presumably, inherited from all of these planets as well as some that are the product of its own multicultural history. But most of those mentioned, or the ones the (Terran, or Earth-based) reader notices, are from Earth.

So what aspects of our culture have survived into whatever point in the future this is? The Wizard of Oz (movie, not book)—Delarua, our narrator, describes a character as looking like “a tall, middle-aged Wicked Witch of the West except not, you know, being actually green”. The Indiana Jones movies. Casablanca. A Superman movie, in 3D. Othello. What doesn’t make it is Star Trek, but I’ll come back to that.

The Best of All Possible Worlds takes its title from Voltaire’s Candide and like Candide is something of a picaresque adventure. After the destruction of the planet Sadira, some of the remaining Sadiri seek refuge on Cygnus Beta. In a scientific expedition to assess the potential for the remaining Sadiri to intermarry with Cygnus Beta’s part-Sadiri population, a small group of experts visits each of a number of “taSadiri” colonies. They include Delarua, a woman from Cygnus Beta, and Dllenahkh, a Sadiri councillor. Delarua is our heroine, Dllenahkh is brooding and tragic. Naturally, this is a romance.

As a result it’s rather episodic—each new colony provides a different model of society and a different challenge. But many of these societies are drawn almost directly from (earth) popculture. There are Faeries, for example; Sadiri who have chosen to live entirely by the precepts of Terran folktales about elves and similar creatures. They are organised into the Seelie and Unseelie as in various stories, there’s something of the Eloi/Morlock divide from H.G. Wells, and definite hints of Tolkien. There are secret societies of telekinetic monks. Mysteriously, only aspects of Western pop culture seem to have survived.

And there are the Sadiri themselves. I said earlier that Star Trek no longer seemed to form a part of this world’s pop culture, but perhaps that’s because on a more fundamental level the text itself is a piece of Star Trek fanfiction with the Sadiri being obvious stand-ins for the Vulcans. It’s probably a coincidence that this book should have been published soon after the 2009 reboot Star Trek which destroyed the planet Vulcan, leaving its survivors homeless and trying to establish a new colony, but this is hardly the only parallel between these two fictional races. The emphasis on emotional control, the part-telepathic skills, the arranged marriages that involve mental bonds, the violent rages of which Sadiri men are capable. One taSadiri community calls its treetop platform dwellings (shades of Tolkien’s Lothlorien) “t’bren”, a word that looks cod-Vulcan. In her acknowledgements Lord does not mention Star Trek. She says that the Sadiri were inspired by communities of fishermen affected by the 2004 tsunami, who were relatively safe in their boats as their homes and families (the majority of those killed were women) were destroyed. Yet the connections are impossible to miss, and every reviewer seems to have noticed them. In a different book this playing around with one of our major cultural artefacts could have been engaging, incisive, critical (and Star Trek offers a lot to play with from the critical point of view).

But this obsession with Earth’s popculture is only one of many things that eventually weigh The Best of All Possible Worlds down. These little tributes to earlier works may be fun, but they don’t lead anywhere, and all the resolution we’re offered is a happy ending for its lead couple whose romance, muted throughout, has never felt like the point of the book. Entire potential plots are bypassed or skimmed over—such as information about an abusive relationship in Delarua’s past, or an intergalactic slave trade. There are constant references to the originators of this world but these are never resolved. Which would be fine, if anything else had been.

And those homages mean that this is a science fiction novel obsessed with the past, not the future; which would explain why so many of the things its characters take for granted feel so out of keeping with the liberal, far-future setting. A situation in which most women stay at home while men go out to work or explore might be the norm in some fishing communities in 2004 or in the science fiction of the 1960s, but in science fiction published in 2013 and set further in the future it certainly requires examination. Then there’s the belief of the characters in genetic determination—the extent to which one is empathetic, cerebral or physical is credited entirely to how much of which planetary race one has in one’s genes. At one point it is implied that people from Earth are physically fundamentally superior to those of the other three planets, as they have developed all aspects of the self where the other “races” have each focused on only one. The Sadiri’s hunt for women with whom to mate is based entirely upon their bloodlines, and even though love is an option, there appears to be a government bureau to assess and sanction unions—the existence of this body is treated as a useful convenience. There’s also a widespread acceptance of the idea that (since Sadiri have significantly longer life-spans) the first generation of babies after the tragedy are to be sex-selected as female and then to be raised in order to provide brides for the remaining adult Sadiri—no one seems to find this creepy at all. Moreover, the models we’re given for relationships are strictly limited; polyamoury is a weird sexual thing only those strange city people do, and homosexuality isn’t even mentioned as an option till close to the end of the book. At least Star Trek fanfiction has traditionally had queer people in it.

The romance is one of the areas in which The Best of All Possible Worlds allows itself to play. Delarua’s first-person narrative sometimes knowingly parodies the language of the romance text; “I was quite sure at this point that my bosom was heaving in maidenly confusion”. As L. Timmel Duchamp points out here, Dllehnakh is very clearly the desired object of the romance, and it’s unsurprising that Delarua’s sections of the narrative are in the first person while his are in the third. But it’s in the resolution of the romance plot that we discover what is perhaps the novel’s most bizarre moment. Having discovered her love for Dllehnakh and convinced him that kissing is not icky, Delarua chooses to quote one of the most recognisable lines in the western canon. “Reader, I married him”.

Jane Eyre. What is going on here?

So Lord has chosen at the end of this book to evoke a book which is terribly concerned with miscegenation and racial purity (Rochester’s first wife, the “madwoman in the attic” Bertha Mason, is mixed-race, and Rochester seems to find this horrifying), and in which the violent, lying man tries to trick the impoverished governess into a wedding that would be legally invalid. Dllehnakh also has a former spouse, we’re told; she fell for someone else, “arranged” for Dllehnakh to find her cheating on him (as with Jane Eyre we only have the husband’s word for the extent of the wife’s culpability) and in a murderous rage he broke his rival’s jaw. We’re told that the Sadiri have different laws for crimes of passion, so this is okay. If Karen Lord is signalling that Jane Eyre is one of this book’s intertexts, another one seems to be the Star Trek: TOS episode “Amok Time”; the one in which Spock’s betrothal is cancelled just as he is entering pon farr (in Star Trek the “fuck or die” meme is canon) and he goes into a state of bloodlust in which he almost kills (and thinks he has killed) Kirk. We’ve already been warned that Sadiri men are incredibly strong when enraged, and towards the end of the book Delarua sees for herself just what that entails.

I mentioned earlier that Delarua had been in an abusive relationship. Her former parter was Ioan, a man with incredible psychic powers, who has, since Delarua left him, been married to her sister Maria with whom he has had two children. It’s inexplicable that Delarua should not have warned her sister about this man, unless his powers continued to operate on her even then. That seems to be the case; at the end of a tense visit with her sister’s family Delarua runs away and Dllehnakh seems to mend the damage to her mind that Ioan has caused—damage more extensive than Delarua herself had realised. Ioan is caught, Maria and her children require therapy; Delarua opts out of this, as she presumably did the first time she left Ioan. What this means is that up to that point (relatively early in the novel) Delarua has been an unreliable narrator. The most redemptive reading for this book that I can come up with then, is this: that years of psychic torture by Ioan have taken their toll on Delarua and we’re meant to see her as an unreliable narrator, meant to question her romantic choices (soon after the encounter with Ioan she expresses interest in a young man because “what he didn’t have in looks he made up for in self-confidence”) and, particularly since Dllehnakh also has psychic powers and she has  let him into her head, meant to see that relationship as fundamentally sinister. “Reader, [he was a creepy, powerful man who messed with my head and] I married him”.

But the relationship is a relatively small part of the plot, and if this is a book about sinister mind-controlling men it’s a terribly unfocused one. I suspect I was right in my first assessment, and this is merely a set of charming references with little to tie it together and almost no engagement with the tropes that it endlessly invokes. It’s a mess.

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November 3, 2012

Lavie Tidhar, Osama

I’m quite a fan of Lavie Tidhar, both as a writer about science fiction and a writer of it (in his case the two are frequently tied together). I also suspect, and it’s possible that I’m completely wrong about this and ascribing to him my own motives, that his relationship to some of the more problematic forms of genre fiction is as combative and as fond as my own, and that working through that relationship forms a big part of his writing.
From this weekend’s column:
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Most science fiction fans are probably familiar with Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, an alternate history set some years after World War Two – a war which, of course, was won by the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan. Within the novel a number of characters are familiar with a book titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a (in that universe) science fictional alternate history in which the allies won the war.

Lavie Tidhar’s Osama begins with a similar premise. Joe, a detective in Laos, is a reader of a series of pulp novels titled Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante in which a number of familiar incidents take place. There’s the bombing of the American embassy in Dar es Salaam, for example; and the absurd story of a shoe bomber. One of the books is titled Sinai Bombings. Another is called World Trade Centre(“What the hell was a world trade centre?” wonders the narrator). Clearly, Joe’s world is rather different from our own in ways that only gradually become clear as the story unfolds.

(I just really like the cover)

This nesting of books within books becomes more complex when a beautiful woman shows up in Joe’s office. It is soon clear to a reader with even a passing familiarity to the genre that the story has entered the realms of noir fiction. Providing no information or reason for her interest Joe’s enigmatic visitor hires him to find the author of the Osama books. It’s a journey that takes him  across the world as he follows up various leads and finds that the line between fiction and reality, in the Osama books as well as in his own world, are not always as obvious as he might like.

Tidhar’s adherence to classic genre tropes has sometimes made me uncomfortable in the past and it does so again here. It seems clear to me that he is not using these tropes uncritically. Yet seeing the literary gender relations of an earlier age replicated over and over can be jarring, particularly when we’re still struggling to get this right in our own time. Even though, as one reads Osama, it becomes clear that the author needs to replicate these genres in order to undo them.

Because Tidhar is evidently interested in the uses to which literary genres can be put. He’s certainly not trying to be subtle about the noir influence here – at one point he quotes almost directly Raymond Chandler’s famous “down these mean streets” line about the character of the detective. The Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante books are purportedly published by a pulp press in Paris that is best known for pornographic works – and Tidhar’s descriptions of the cover art will sound familiar to those of us who like our literature disreputable. “Load of rubbish, innit”, claims a book seller. Yet Joe’s story is interspersed with extracts from the Osama books, and they are hardly the over the top thrillers we might reasonably expect. Instead, there’s a factual tone that seems more fitted to newspaper reportage, and that sometimes veers towards deadpan. “The threat of political violence in Dar es Salaam had been classified as Low. That was later revised.”

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter; this is a terrible cliché, but a true one. Terrorism is rarely mentioned in Osama. Instead, the subject of the Osama novels is given a label more befitting Batman. By showing us our world from the outside and in between the covers of a genre novel Osama plays out questions of how stories are told, and how they invest symbols with particular meaning. Bin Laden himself never makes an appearance in this story that bears his name, but at one point Tidhar rather cheekily juxtaposes descriptions of the famous picture of him, a version of which adorns the cover (“the man with the long beard and the clear, penetrating eyes”)  and of God (“Old man with long beard, yes?”). For a novel that derives its meaning from the meanings with which we invest Bin Laden, this seems entirely appropriate.

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October 13, 2012

Jeff Noon, Channel Sk1n

It’s hard for me to explain quite how important Jeff Noon’s work was to my reading when I was younger. I was about fifteen when I discovered Needle in the Groove, and I fell in love very quickly. It’s been at least five years since I read a Noon book, and I was a little apprehensive about Channel Sk1n; it turns out however much I’ve changed in the last decade-and-a-bit Noon’s prose still works for me. The following (a version of last week’s Left of Cool column) is rather fangirly.

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I was a teenager when I first discovered Jeff Noon. I found his Needle in the Groove (music, drugs, alternate Manchester) and Vurt (virtual reality, drugs, alternate Manchester) in a library and very quickly fell in love. This was before the arrival of the online bookstore and at the time the best I could do was to scour local bookshops and make pleading noises at friends and relatives travelling to the UK. It was a sort of global treasure hunt, and within a few years I’d almost collected the set. I read 2002’s Falling Out of Cars mere weeks after it had been published, and finally felt that I had caught up.

It took me a while to realise that Noon had also brought me back to science fiction. Because while all of his novels might be considered science fictional, that was never, for me, the point of them. The point was Noon’s prose, which broke and stuttered and fragmented itself into poetry.

So I was thrilled earlier this year to discover that the author had written another novel, his first in a decade. Channel Sk1n is a novel about the media, information and the idea of celebrity. Noon’s protagonist, Nola Blue, is a pop star of the most plastic, manufactured variety. So much is she a product of her industry and manager that she has trouble recognising herself. Yet her last song hasn’t done as well as it ought to have, and it appears that her days of celebrity are close to an end. Then Nola becomes infected with a strange virus that connects her with the television signals that play so big a part in the world in which she lives, so that her body begins to broadcast TV. Nola’s skin literally becomes the screen.

There’s another major character. The world of Channel Sk1n is one that is obsessed with reality television, and no programme is more popular than The Pleasure Dome. The Dome is a structure that holds one person, chosen from many competitors, in isolation for weeks at a time. The Dome picks up on each of their thoughts and displays them in constantly changing colours and shapes upon its surface. It is the ultimate form of voyeurism. In addition, other channels broadcast every movement of the person inside. When the book opens, the Dome’s inhabitant is Melissa Gold, daughter of Nola’s agent. Trapped in the Dome, it seems Melissa can do very little to influence matters outside; yet she achieves the impossible. It all culminates in a dreamlike, paradoxical climax that may be more powerful than anything Noon has ever written.

As with all of Jeff Noon’s work, it’s tempting to sit back and let the words flow over you. Channel Sk1n is more pared down than much of the author’s earlier work, but the blurring of lines between prose and poetry is a constant. Occasionally it bursts into static, pages filled with symbols that might easily be mistaken for a formatting error. This works particularly well in context because Channel Sk1n is only available as an ebook. It’s tempting to read into Nola’s loss of identity as a musician through her connection with the music industry some of the same impulses that may have led Noon to self-publish this book.

Noon’s move towards self-publishing means that his back catalogue will also soon be made available in electronic form. Some (notably Cobralingus, which always sat rather awkwardly within the confines of the traditional printed book) will even be enhanced by the new format. Readers who discover the writer through Channel Sk1n will not have to spend years hunting down his works.

We’ve reached a point as a culture where the reality-TV-dystopia is a genre in itself (and hopefully someone somewhere has coined a less clunky name for it). I’m not sure yet whether Channel Sk1n brings anything substantially new to the debate, but it’s a smart, strong piece of work.

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October 2, 2012

Here be Myrmidons

On twitter earlier today I worried that my columns for the National Geographic Traveller seemed more likely to dissuade people from travel than otherwise – in the October issue (out now!) I discuss the usefulness of cruise ships to potential murderers, and November and December’s projected pieces aren’t particularly cheerful either. In last month’s column, of which a longer version is reproduced below, I go a step further and suggest that travel writing and travel writers themselves are inherently suspicious. I’m fortunate to have a tolerant editor.

The Hav books and The Islanders are glorious, complex things, and I’d love to write more about them free of time and wordcount constraints.  An earlier version of this piece contained a section on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities; in retrospect it’s probably a good thing that I left it out.

 

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The publication of Jan Morris’ Last Letters from Hav caused some confusion among readers. Written in 1985, this travel narrative took the form of a series of dispatches from a historical city; twenty years later Morris would revisit the city with the publication of Hav of the Myrmidons. Ursula K. Le Guin explains in her introduction to my edition of Morris’ two Hav books that aspiring travellers were surprised by the difficulty of getting to Hav. Why anyone should have wanted to visit a place that was, according to Morris, in the throes of a violent revolution remains a mystery, but the real problem was that Hav had never existed.

To set a book in a fictional place is nothing new. Fantasy writers have been doing it for years, providing elaborate maps, family trees and histories for worlds that never existed. Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, know that The Lord of the Rings was only a miniscule part of his universe. Tolkien’s Middle Earth has its own creation myth as well as multiple entire languages created by the author.

All this takes dedication (and a certain level of obsession). But to create a new city in our own world is something else entirely. For Hav to be plausible, Morris has to rewrite all of human history. She inserts the city into the Iliad and the Bible; she makes it an important point on the Silk Route, and the site of an historic meeting between the Attaturk and Lawrence of Arabia. Ibn Battuta writes of the city, as does Marco Polo.

Marco Polo is a useful clue here to the nature of Hav. Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities has the Italian explorer describing to Kublai Khan a host of fictional cities, each a meditation on the words and signs we use to experience, think of and talk about other places.

The invocation of Marco Polo is not the only way in which Hav flaunts its fictionality. Morris rather cheekily has a character express indignation at the marginalisation of the city in the histories of the writer Braudel, and later has her narrator describe it as looking “like a city of pure fiction”.

It’s tempting to see the Hav books as straightforward imitations of travel writing, but of a place that doesn’t exist. But the “Jan Morris” who is the narrator of a travelogue is not the same as the Jan Morris who is the author of two works of fiction. Sometimes it seems clear that “Jan” is a creation of parody. Both books are full of genre-specific cliché – native bazaars, inefficient foreign bureaucracies, lost glories of the past, the inscrutability of Chinese immigrants. “Jan” is constantly attempting to write herself into this history; she strives to find historical affinities between her own  (Welsh) background and Hav’s early Kretev settlers, insists that she has inside knowledge that is unavailable to others, and shows contempt of other tourists whose experience of the city is less ‘authentic’ than her own. We know this character; we see her in travel literature all the time.

No reader, even one confused by Last Letters from Hav, would mistake Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago for a place on earth. The Dream Archipelago is the setting for many of Priest’s works, including 2011’s The Islanders, which presents itself as a kind of gazette. The introduction explains the geography of the planet, with large landmasses in the north and south and a belt of islands scattered across the tropical and temperate zones of its single ocean. This is followed by a series of short chapters, each about one of the islands. They are arranged in alphabetical order; each contains essential details about the island’s geographical peculiarities, its currency and its history. This seems comfortably factual, but we know from the beginning that things won’t be that easy. Chaster Kammeston, the supposed writer of this introduction, points out that the book simply cannot contain every island in the archipelago when experts cannot even be sure how many there are. There are also problems of islands with similar names and co-ordinates, of different forms of island patois that give the same name to different things (or different names to the same thing), so that it’s hard to be sure if one island is distinct from another.

Then too there are cartographical fictions that are made on purpose. We learn that the island of Tremm, off the south coast of Mequa, does not appear on any map. This island is a secret military base, and there’s no official record of its existence. Later we learn of the visual distortions caused by the planet’s winds, so that the aerial view of some places changes according to circumstances – an effect that calls every map into question. These details that undermine everything we can know about the islands are scattered across the book.

Most disconcerting of all are the hints that the book itself is not all it claims to be (and what sort of name for a gazette is The Islanders, anyway?). Kammeston, in the introduction, says that the book is well-meaning and “will do no harm”. Yet his introduction seems less and less likely as we read through the book and find that it implicates Kammeston himself in a murder, and later contains news of his death.

Though they both write travelogues of fictional places, Morris and Priest use very different strategies. Morris immerses us in the certainty of really knowing a place, then hits us with the revelation that our knowledge isn’t real. Priest adopts the most fact-centred of formats but undermines it constantly. Places cannot be known, both books suggest. All travel writing is a lie.

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May 20, 2012

Hergé, Flight 714

Last week I discovered that Erich Von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? and Hergé’s Flight 714 had been published in the same year. Naturally this led to great silliness.

 

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At some point in school, when we were about twelve or thirteen, some of my classmates discovered Chariots of the Gods?, a book by Erich Von Däniken. I suspect the discovery of this book, or of others like it is a teenage ritual of sorts. I suppose one could pontificate about the teenager’s attraction to finding his or her place in the world, to questioning ideas that were previously taken for granted, and how this book might seem attractive to someone in this position.

Von Däniken’s book points out strange phenomena found in ancient cultures across the world and suggests that they might be explained by the ancients having access to advanced technology. This is not a particularly new idea – even now one encounters people who cite the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as evidence that ancient Indians had flying machines and nuclear weaponry and that therefore Our Culture is Better. But Von Däniken’s theory was that the gods and other supernatural figures of myth and legend were in fact alien visitors to the Earth.

Chariots of the Gods? was published in 1968. Another book published in 1968 had probably been read by most of the classmates who were so taken with Von Däniken. If so, their enthusiasm is rather surprising since this other book would already have introduced them to some of the same ideas. The book I’m referring to is Flight 714, one of Hergé’s Tintin adventures.

A strange book need not necessarily be an obscure one. The Tintin books certainly weren’t short of sheer weirdness – consider the dreamlike scenes at the beginning of The Shooting Star, in which the end of the world seems inevitable. Yet Flight 714 is one of the less popular books in the series, and I’ve occasionally had to argue with people who had forgotten its very existence.

Tintin, Haddock and Calculus are on their way to an astronautical convention in Australia, when they fall in with the unscrupulous billionaire Carreidas. Finding that Calculus is the first man in years to make him laugh, Carreidas invites the travellers to fly to the conference with him in his personal plane. Unfortunately, a plot is already afoot to hijack this plane. The travellers are taken to a mysterious island in the Lesser Sundas where the evil Rastapopulous attempts to extract information from Carreidas regarding his considerably large bank accounts.

Thus far, this all sounds like a typical Tintin adventure. Until the travellers escape through a cave, down which the native Sondonesians refuse to follow, claiming (in broken English, obviously) that it is not allowed, and that “gods” who “come from sky in fire lorries” will punish them. Meanwhile, Tintin appears to be receiving instructions telepathically from some force. It turns out that the island is a centre of human-alien interaction; its temples built to resemble the space suits and ships of visitors who arrived thousands of years ago.

An earthquake, some explosions and a volcanic eruption later, the island no longer exists. Our heroes are hypnotised into forgetting the whole story, and apart from a few puzzling memories and a piece of metal never seen before, the whole thing might never have happened.

Which brings me to the title of the book. Flight 714 is the plane that our protagonists would have caught had they not become mixed up in Carreidas’ adventure – and the flight they are seen boarding in the last panel. Yet this flight is mentioned only twice or thrice in the book; it is never seen by the reader. So why this title? Perhaps we’re meant to think about what would have happened if Tintin and his companions had taken the original flight. Perhaps, like the characters themselves, we’re meant to forget that the entire story ever happened; this would certainly explain the confusion exhibited by some Hergé fans when the book is mentioned to them. I suspect that aliens are involved in some capacity.

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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

 

April 11, 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars

Before I watched John Carter last month I reread A Princess of Mars for the first time in many years. I realised I’d forgotten most of the plot but very little of the feel of the place – for all its problems (and they are legion) Barsoom is a truly epic setting.
Because I am a lazy person, this month’s short column for Kindle magazine was about A Princess of Mars.

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For most of human history we have known very little about space – for that matter, we still do. Dreams of space travel once focused primarily on the moon, the heavenly body most visible to the naked eye. But then telescopes were invented and we began to learn more about the planets, our knowledge growing with improving technology.

In the 1870s the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli discovered a strange feature on the surface of Mars – the appearance of straight lines. He called these “canalli”, or “channels”. When Schiaparelli’s findings were translated into English the relatively innocent “canalli” was translated as “canals”, the latter word carrying the connotation that these lines were man- (or martian-) made. This was probably the reason behind the flowering of fiction about Martians at the turn of the twentieth century.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars is one such work of fiction, published in 1912. It tells of John Carter, a former confederate soldier and now gold prospector who, while fleeing from savage apaches (racial sensitivity is not one of the strong points of this book) stumbles into a mysterious cave and, in an incomprehensible series of events, has an out of body experience and is transported/astrally projected to Mars.

Carter’s early hours on Mars do at least pay lip service to the fact that it would be difficult to survive on a planet other than one’s own. He has trouble adjusting to the difference in gravity, and does not speak the language of the natives – Mars, or Barsoom, is home to various species of alien but they share a common tongue. This state of affairs does not last for long. Soon enough he is adopted by the four-armed green Martians (known as the Tharks), and it seems a matter of days before he has mastered their language, and begun to rise in their ranks. If all this seems something of a cliché, it’s because A Princess of Mars is one of the founding texts of the genre. It’s also why Carter is the least interesting thing about this book. Things get a lot more fun when the titular princess, the humanoid Dejah Thoris of Helium, shows up. In what is a rather scattered plot, Carter and Dejah Thoris escape, bring down a rival ruler, and unite the green and “red” (humanoid) Martians.

Yet the plot isn’t really that important. What makes A Princess of Mars work is Barsoom itself – a dying planet with a failing civilisation. We’re told very little of the history of Barsoom. We learn that there were once more humanoid races; that, like Earth, Mars once had seas. We’re told almost nothing of the strange old men who operate the machinery that keeps the Martian air breathable.

It’s easy to see why in John Carter, Andrew Stanton’s 2012 adaptation of the novel, the director should have chosen to jettison most of the plot, cobbling together a new one and focusing on the visual depiction of the planet. Because A Princess of Mars isn’t really a very good book, but Barsoom? Barsoom is glorious.

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April 11, 2012

A signal boost (with some added self-promotion)

Fabio Fernandes and The Future Fire have started a Peerbackers project to finance a collection of colonialism-themed SFF from outside the first world perspective.

Much widely distributed science fiction and fantasy is written by American and other Anglophone authors, and treats subjects close to the hearts of straight, white, English-speaking men. There’s nothing wrong with this sci-fi itself—we love lots of it—but there’s clearly something missing. Having white Anglo cis/hetero/males as (the only) role models is not an option any more. We aim to redress this balance, not only by publishing speculative stories by people with different viewpoints and addressing concerns from outside of the usual area (seeWorld SF), but also by explicitly including fiction that addresses the profound socio-political issues around colonisation and colonialism (see Race in SF). We want to see political stories: not partisan-political, but writing that recognizes the implications for real people and cultures of the events and actions that make up science fictional or fantastic histories, as well as our own history.

This looks like being an exciting project, and Fabio and Djibril are Good People. You can donate to the anthology here (where they also explain how much they hope to raise and how they plan to spend it). Hopefully some of you will also consider submitting work for consideration.

 

As for non-first-world sf that already exists, Zubaan’s Breaking the Bow, now has a cover which you can see here. This collection has been a long time coming – I’ve been suppressing my excitement about it for over a year now. It’s an anthology of speculative fiction based on the Ramayana and contains stories by Kuzhali Manickavel, Manjula Padmanabhan, Lavie Tidhar, Tabish Khair and Tori Truslow, among others, and is edited by Anil Menon and Vandana Singh (who also has a story in the anthology). There’s also a story by me; please do not read it though you may admire my name in the table of contents.

I’m still not sure when this is due out, except that it’s “soon”; but I get to share this because now that it has a cover it is a thing that exists.

Edit: I knew I’d forget something. The cover is by Pinaki De, who has been responsible for some of my favourite covers in Indian publishing over the last few years.