Archive for ‘science fiction’

May 24, 2014

Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon

I saw quite a bit of discussion of Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon in the weeks before I read it myself. Most of the discussion consisted of reviewers being terribly impressed by the fact that it was set in Nigeria—often to the exclusion of all else that might conceivably be said about it. Naturally I decided that when I wrote about it I would barely mention this fact and I think I’ve mostly done that here. Lagos is integral to this story, but there are far more interesting things to say about the book (and hopefully I have said some of them) than that it is set in a different country to most mainstream SF.

Having said which, I don’t think one can entirely ignore its non-UK, non-USness, when this is something of which the book itself is very aware. More than once, we have the characters stopping to reflect how weird it is that this should happen here. I suppose that’s inevitable, and I think at one point it would have disappointed me a little, but—as I said some weeks ago, I recently read Deji Bryce Olukotun’s Nigerians in Space and I’ve been thinking a lot as a result about the question of what groups of people are able to imagine science fiction (or science fact) in particular ways. And perhaps it’s because that is currently at
the forefront of my mind, but the fact that Lagoon’s characters know what international pop culture has to say about alien visitation stories and where they occur began to feel necessary. In a longer piece, I think I’d have had to talk about this, regardless of my original noble ambitions.

From last week’s column.

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The smallest creatures seem to be having the worst time of it in Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon. Aliens have landed off the coast by Lagos, bringing with them all manner of change. Marine creatures morph into weirder, deadlier versions of themselves; figures from myth take physical form, the roads themselves rise up and attack travellers. But in the midst of all these changes the real sufferers seem to be the bats; at least thrice during the course of the novel the chaos that follows the arrival of these mysterious strangers causes bats (along with birds) to fall out of the sky, be hit by aeroplanes, to generally be swept away in the larger
events taking place around them, often after a brief moment of expanded consciousness. The chaos that follows change can be cruel.

And chaos is exactly what you’d expect following an alien invasion. Lagoon follows three main characters; Adaora, a marine biologist and the closest thing this polyphonic novel has to a protagonist; Agu, a wounded soldier; and Anthony, a Ghanaian rapper, all three strangers from different backgrounds with some unusual talents in common. (It’s tempting to read what follows as the greatest Amar Akbar Anthony tribute ever written, though for all I know Okorafor may never have heard of the film). Okorafor doesn’t follow that (always impressive, but not particularly original) city novel trope of having the three plotlines weave in and out of each other occasionally intersecting—though the narrative voice skips from one character to the other, their plot is broadly the same one. But it’s far from being the only plot here; the novel leaps from minor character to minor character, from visiting Nigerian-American teenager to cross-dressing would-be-kidnapper, orphaned child to head of state, puzzled and angry swordfish to mythical being to anthropomorphised land to overconfident spider. It’s not a technique that is conducive to character development, but this is hardly the point. The result of all of these intersecting lives is to offer up a world of overlapping layers, a city made up of competing and contradictory voices. There’s even a multiplicity of genres and languages, as Okorafor invokes pop culture, myth, science fiction and fantasy in a variety of voices, has her characters shift between Standard and Pidgin English. It’s a real city, and a chaos that is familiar, and fertile, and intimidating.

Chaos is also the result when the news of aliens among them leaks to the inhabitants of Lagos through the mechanisms of word of mouth, social media and cameraphone. It’s a world that is immediately recognisable particularly to those of us who expect the internet to be with us constantly, a sea of information that in itself resists the shape of linear narrative. And it results in a complete overthrow of order; in the carnivalesque scenes in the middle sections of the book religious groups, LGBT activists, aspiring criminals, rap music fans and (therefore) street food sellers gather outside the house where our three main characters and their alien friend have taken shelter.

Early in the novel, as a small boy watches the woman from another world walk out onto the beach, he welcomes her arrival—understanding that “things around him were about to change forever” and that change could only be an improvement. He’s wrong; for him this is not necessarily the case. The breakdown of order is opportunity, but it can leave the vulnerable even more so (just ask the bats). Yet the world we’re left with at the end of the novel is one that is radically transformed, where the inhabitants of Lagos (human or otherwise) are altered forever, and the change that the aliens brought is spiralling slowly outwards to the rest of Nigeria, the rest of Africa, the rest of the world. The possibilities are endless.

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May 12, 2014

Bulletpoints: Transcendence

Transcendence, dir. Wally Pfister. Spoilers, obviously.

I’m aware even as I write this that it’s rather pointless; by now this movie is widely understood to be quite bad, and my writing many words about it being quite bad isn’t really adding anything to the world. Only my baffled love for Bettany and Hall spurs me on.

 

  • The important thing about Transcendence, I think, is that someone clearly set out to make a movie based on some sort of venn diagram of my interests. Do I like science fiction? Yes I do! Do I like Rebecca Hall? I think she is perfect. Do I like Cillian Murphy? Very much. Paul Bettany? Paul Bettany in GLASSES? Etc. Perhaps I should have spent less time squeeing about attractive people on the internet and more on pointing out that I also like films to be good. This one wasn’t.
  • Hidden somewhere in Transcendence is a far better film, and one that has Paul Bettany’s character Max Waters at its centre. Waters is given the film’s framing narrative, but to me this only highlights the ways in which it’s clear to me that it would be better balanced were he its protagonist. After we’d watched it Niall said something about how it would have worked in book form, and I can see this as the sort of literary SF where the dubious SF background exists to provide an occasion for the protagonist’s story; a man who found himself ranged against his best friends, who watched his world fall apart, who now mourns them. Transcendence chooses to linger on (“explore” would be the wrong word) the details of how and why its world fell apart, and … it’s a bit embarrassing when it does.
  • At one point Cillian Murphy says “*dramatic pause* We’ll have to shut down the internet.” I wonder if the actor laughed a bitter laugh, or just made a face and went with it, or.
  • And yet some of Transcendence’s characters, and some of its relationships, are ambitious. The huge, doomed love of the Casters—Will is martyred For Science, Evelyn is unable to accept his inevitable death and does big, foolish things to keep him, until the two realise this is impossible and choose to die in each other’s arms. These aren’t the emotions of real people, but they might have worked in a Greek tragedy. Max’s love for his friends (and also his almost courtly love for Evelyn) also feels like it belongs to a literary or dramatic tradition, rather than any mundane SFnal (and it has to be okay to use those words together in some situations) world.
  • Early in the film Depp’s Will Caster is about to give some sort of TED talk and a young woman comes up to him and asks him for his autograph. Max complains that he does not have groupies (I will be your groupie, Paul Bettany! I cried silently from my seat. Nic may have been doing something similar). It’s gratifying later in the movie to find that Bree (Kate Mara) and her band of anti-technology “terrorists”, RIFT, often gather to discuss Max’s work.
  • Bree’s commitment to eyeliner while camping out in the desert, on the run from the law and hiding from any technology, is admirable.
  • A fun exercise might be to watch Transcendence and watch the trailer for Luc Besson’s Lucy (or the film itself, when it comes out in a few months) and try to work out to what extent Morgan Freeman’s roles in them are interchangeable. He seems to be at a phase in his career where his characters are acknowledged as wise and important but otherwise ignored, and in the actual plot reduced to shaking their heads slowly in slow horror at what humanity has done now. Perhaps his role in Lucy will surprise me? (And perhaps that film will turn out to be about more than Scarlett Johansson killing brown guys?) At least his character in Transcendence stays alive.
  • He comes close, though. Almost all of the staff at Dr Joseph Tagger’s lab celebrate a colleague’s birthday; Tagger (Freeman) alone sits at his desk, working, with a slice of very chocolatey cake next to him. When he next looks up, many of his colleagues are dead. The cake had been poisoned by terrorists. This is brilliant because it’s the worst plot ever (THE CAKE. WAS POISONED. BY TERRORISTS.) but also because it may be the only time I’ve read or seen any sort of fictional disaster, natural or man-made, and come out of it thinking “perhaps I could survive that”. I am not a fan of chocolate cake.
  • The dialogue in this film could easily have been written by aliens. It’s an understanding of what people sound like that is inaccurate, but it’s the inaccuracy of a complete outsider observing something utterly foreign. It’s rather fascinating.
  • “They claim to be defending humanity … but they kill people!” (I’m paraphrasing) says Will, profoundly. “That’s not logical!”
  • The last thing in which I saw Rebecca Hall was the often-very-good Iron Man 3, which did at least pass the Bechdel test. In IM3, she plays Maya Hansen, a brilliant scientist whose work Tony Stark is able to improve upon, who makes some terrible decisions, repents of them, and dies trying to fix the damage she’s caused. In Transcendence she plays Evelyn Caster, a brilliant scientist whose work is subordinate to that of her brilliant scientist husband , who makes some terrible decisions and causes massive, world-changing problems, and dies trying to fix the damage etc.
  • I think what irritates me most is that it would be so easy for this film to be about a completely different woman and scientist. It’s established for us at the beginning that Evelyn’s the one who deals with the social things, like placating investors and wearing appropriate clothing. Soft skills—Will, on the other hand, can barely dress himself, and exclusively does Science when he’s not signing autographs or appearing on the cover of Wired. Evelyn gives introductory speeches about her husband’s work; Will is the main act. And so the movie establishes her as helpmeet rather than partner and equal.
  • When Will finds out he’s dying, he only wants to spend his remaining time with his wife. Evelyn hardly spends this time with him—she’s convinced she can solve the problem with science. Between then she and Max achieve something amazing, yet the role into which the movie has already placed Evelyn makes it easier for us to read this as the obsessive, over-emotional behaviour of a wife who refuses to accept reality (she won’t simply accept Max’s opinions) than those of a scientist obsessed with her work, turning to her understanding of science to solve a problem and as a result doing things no one has achieved before. All her subsequent actions are framed as deluded or brainwashed; as if she’s so wrapped up in her newly-returned (or is he?) husband that she simply isn’t noticing the huge events taking place around her.
  • So imagine a different film, built upon what Transcendence says about Evelyn rather than what it does. In which she turns to science to solve her problems not out of an inability to face reality, but because she’s good at science and believes in its ability to fix things. In which she knows exactly what she’s doing when she builds an underground lab in the desert, in which the thing that may or may not be Will Caster is focused on healing the environment because Evelyn built it and these are Evelyn’s priorities. In which her huge mistake isn’t the result of disproportionate love but of hubris. It would still BE a huge mistake, but one of those motives is more culturally respected (and I’m not sure it should be) than the other.
  • Almost everything that Subashsini says here, because she’s right and wonderful.
  • I do think, though, that it’s interesting that Evelyn’s dawning realisation that everything is horribly wrong is framed in terms of her own bodily integrity. The first time she seems to see that something is wrong is when “Will” appropriates the body of a man he has healed; someone she barely knows approaches her, saying in her husband’s voice “I can touch you now!” Later, she finds out that “Will” is monitoring her to the point of even keeping track of her hormones (the all-seeing husband, as Suba says) and it’s a violation too far. “You’re not allowed”, she says, and it works as a line because it’s filled with that sort of childish incomprehension at this exertion of power. It’s here that she leaves, and I think this is the point at which stopping “Will” becomes something that she’s capable of considering.
  • I make the distinction between Will and “Will” because for much of the film (including, I’d argue, the end) it’s not clear that they are the same thing. The film makes more of this question than necessary—considering that, as Tagger says at one point, even if it was Will, he’s evolved so far so quickly that the question is moot.
  • Speaking of violations of bodily integrity. The first instance of “Will” healing-then-taking-over another body is one in which consent for his continued infestation is not given—it’s an emergency, as is the other instance of his healing someone. What about the other people lining up to be healed? I think it’s interesting (particularly with regards to, again, Suba’s post and what it says about collectivity) that we aren’t told.
  • I’ve just used the word “infestation”. I think there’s a moment where the movie suggests that “it” (“Will”) is building a nest of sorts underground. For something apparently highly evolved beyond humans, I find the film’s ways of talking about “Will” interestingly basic. Nest. Control. Protect.
  • It is a very pretty film, though.
May 8, 2014

Manil Suri, City of Devi

A few years ago I read “The Screwfly Solution” in the middle of what felt like an epidemic of random, violent attacks on women (it is possible that it was just the normal amount of violence against women, at a period when the media was particularly keen to report it. And that possibility is scary too.) and it was terrifying. I didn’t think [spoiler?] that aliens were orchestrating the end of our species, but something of the horror of the book echoed off the horror of the real world and made both worse. Something of the sort happened to me with Manil Suri’s latest, particularly since I haven’t been able to go online in months without being immersed in worrying (and very shouty) news. I’m not sure any book should have to shoulder the weight of the world in this way, but it did rather wish it upon itself.

From this week’s column.

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Perhaps the middle of India’s elections was not the best time to read a book in which the election of a right-wing religious party sets off a series of events that rapidly lead to impending nuclear war.

“Four days before the bomb that is supposed to obliterate Bombay and kill us all,” Sarita haggles over the cost of a pomegranate in Crawford Market. Her family, along with much of the city’s population, has fled the city. Sarita alone stays, waiting for her husband Karun, who has disappeared.

There’s a lot going on in Manil Suri’s City of Devi; probably more than there needs to be. It is part of a thematic trilogy (though the author has hinted that there may be a fourth book) with Suri’s earlier books The Death of Vishnu and The Age of Shiva. Trinities are invoked many times in the book, though often through the characters’ musing upon them in a way that is neither particularly subtle nor profound. It’s the weakest aspect of a book that has a lot more to recommend it.

The love stories, for one. City of Devi has two alternating narrators, Sarita and Jaz (Ijaz), both of whom are in love with the same man and who find themselves becoming allies in the attempt to find him and to escape the city. It would be easy enough simply to read this set of relationships as a cliché of Indian family life—the gay man unable to come out, the bewildered wife married as a smokescreen, the secret lover (doubly scandalous because of another religion!) on the side. It’s to Suri’s credit that he makes more of them than this. Jaz is profoundly irritating (must he call himself “the Jazter?”) and his courtship of Karun is often comical (“’Jai Hind,’ he declared. ‘What?’ I had been given the brush-off before, but never with a patriotic slogan.”) but these are human failings. Sarita and Karun do build something between them, even if that something is fragile and unconventional and features the worst euphemism for sex that you will hear this month; she’s never just the poor, deluded wife.

At one point, as she documents the violent political changes taking place around her, Sarita is able to claim that she was too caught up in her personal life to really pay attention. Which explains why she is able to stand in the middle of a market after a bomb blast and worry about the cost of the pomegranate that becomes a talisman of sorts for their relationship.

It’s rather pointless to argue whether Suri’s near-future, communalism-flavoured nuclear apocalypse is plausible, though watching or reading the news it can easily feel that way. Religious mobs roam the streets within carefully-maintained borders; in a darkly comic interlude a man is nearly hanged when mistaken for a Muslim, but saved at the last minute when they pull his pants down. Legislation has decreed that cartoon characters can only have proper Hindu names, so that Donald Duck lives on as Bimal Batak. The whole country is obsessed with Superdevi, star of a superhero film and the perfect mix of religion, commercialism and pop culture.

Jaz and Sarita’s journey through this landscape can often get tedious, with message overriding all other concerns of setting. But the early scenes of the novel are a thing of beauty. Perhaps there’s something inherently compelling about not moving, about staying in one place, waiting for the end, being certain of doom. There’s a feeling almost of hyperreality about this section of the novel—the deserted aquarium with most of its fish eaten by a security guard, the empty street down which Sarita runs to retrieve her pomegranate. Normal rules are in abeyance, and the motivations of ordinary people aren’t what you expect them to be. And perhaps it’s simply the eeriness of seeing Bombay, of all cities, almost empty.

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Unrelated to anything, but there’s a weird, unlikely resonance between the opening scenes of this novel and those of Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. Tropical fruits haggled over in the heat-ravaged Asian cities of the future. The similarities between the books end there, but I wonder if, as mainstream SF moves into newer settings, this is a scene we’re going to see repeated.
May 3, 2014

Suniti Namjoshi, The Mothers of Maya Diip

For context, here is a short review from last year of The Fabulous Feminist. I’ll be doing a longer (and therefore better) piece on The Mothers of Maya Diip at some point. A shorter version exists in my notes, and consists entirely of the sentence “This book gives no fucks”.

It really doesn’t though.

(From this week’s column.)

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When Zubaan’s Suniti Namjoshi reader, The Fabulous Feminist, came out last year, I wasn’t sure what to make of some parts of it. The fables, for which she’s probably best known, were wonderful, but the extracts from longer works often left one adrift. Particularly fascinating to me was the chapter from the middle of The Mothers of Maya Diip, which looked a lot like a classic feminist utopia story.

Maya Nagar is a matriarchy on a remote island (presumably off the coast of India), populated only by women. Motherhood is synonymous with adulthood in this society, the raising of children (biological or otherwise) is seen as the fundamental function of an adult, and social hierarchy is based on the maternal duties one is considered qualified to perform. Into this world the Blue Donkey (who appears in some of Namjoshi’s other work as a sort of stand-in for the author) is invited for a visit. She brings with her her friend Jyanvi, who immediately falls in love with a woman from the city. Unfortunately, Jyanvi also immediately finds herself chafing at the lack of choice, the inability for a “mother” to define herself separately from children and both outsiders find themselves caught up in the machinations of state politics.

The Mothers of Maya Diip was published by the Women’s Press, which had also published a number of works of feminist science fiction, among them Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, and it’s difficult not to read it as a book that is aware of and in conversation with this tradition of writing. The utopia or dystopia is (or sometimes is, or ought to be) a novel of ideas, of taking things to their logical conclusions. The Mothers of Maya Diip moves between three fictional societies; the woman-dominated Maya Nagar, the male-majority Ashagarh, and the island of Paradise where gender hardly seems to exist. Each model is examined and found to contain some form of violence at its heart—the revelation of what happens to the boys born in Maya Nagar would by itself be enough reason to condemn that society.

But if The Mothers of Maya Diip is placing itself in that tradition, it isn’t necessarily submitting to it. There’s a sense that the book is at least one remove away from the sort of story it is telling; there’s an ironic distance that is maintained throughout. At times one gets the impression that this is itself part of Namjoshi’s response to the tradition of books in which she’s writing; and the presence of Valerie, a visitor and western feminist who explains these traditions to the Blue Donkey and Jyanvi (and who believes that Jyanvi, a lesbian, has things easier here) seems to bear this out.

If it both emulates and distances itself from feminist utopian science fiction, The Mothers of Maya Diip is willing to invoke (and discard) other genres as well. There’s something of the epic about this story, with its arcane religious ceremonies, its power struggles between priestesses and queens. We are offered not one, but two fictional, fantastic city states. At one point the Ranisaheb and her entourage are cast out of the city and exiled in a forest. There’s a bizarre science fictional interlude featuring a group of androids and a maternal helicopter. There’s even a love story, most of the time about two people who are completely incapable of understanding one another.

At the centre of it all is the Blue Donkey, sometimes treated as human and sometimes not, and devastatingly commonsensical in the face of all that is going on around her. It’s her cool detachment from the book that allows it to be as odd a thing as it is, that makes thought experiments of its genres as well as of its fictional cities.

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May 1, 2014

I have read the Clarke Award shortlist and

I thought about reviewing it in gif form, since sustained thoughts and sentences clearly weren’t going to happen, but am incapable of even that this week. So here is the whole thing reviewed* in one sentence**:

I’d be very happy if James Smythe’s The Machine or Kameron Hurley’s God’s War won; I think The Adjacent is very good; I’m not sure Ancillary Justice is great, though I enjoyed it, but I think it’s important at this particular moment (which is a completely reasonable thing for a literary prize to reward); The Disestablishment of Paradise is ecological SF about yearning and loss and has a middle-aged woman protagonist and an interesting structure and should be amazing and really, really isn’t; Nexus manages to make The Disestablishment of Paradise look good.

 

Adam Roberts has reviewed all the books on the shortlist here and here in far greater depth, and is mostly right about things. He is kinder to Nexus than I feel, and also (in a very different way) more appreciative of The Adjacent.

 

This post illustrated with the cover of The Disestablishment of Paradise because look at it.

 

 

 

*Where “reviewed” can be considered to include observations that are not reviews at all.

 

**Where “sentence” can be considered to include several sentences strung together with semi-colons.

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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