Reviews

Review: “Of Sorrow and Such” by Angela Slatter

slatterTor.com, 2015.

This review first appeared a little over eight months ago in Strange Horizons.

Patience Gideon lives a quiet life with her foster daughter and familiar, until another witch comes to town and trouble follows soon after. Rescuing a local shape-shifter goes pear-shaped when gratitude doesn’t guarantee common sense, and Patience finds herself in the hands of the men whose preferred dealings with witches end in public burning…

There’s an author’s note at the back of the book that says Of Sorrow and Such takes place in a pre-established universe; one that Slatter’s written about before in her collections Sourdough and Other Stories and The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings. Fair warning: I haven’t read either of these, and so my assessment of Sorrow is purely as a standalone novella.

The story takes place in your typical European mediaeval/early modern community, complete with overbearing religious orders and expected hidebound social relations (especially gender relations: more on that later). I wondered briefly if this was a secondary world, but there are enough references sprinkled through (most often religious, along the lines of not suffering witches to live) to set it firmly in this one. “Simply confess how you worship and obey Lucifer, the fallen one” (114) says one of the churchmen, removing all my doubt.

There’s no real indication of a specific time period, though. I was a little surprised to find a reference to skin cells – “I should have no more attachment to her than I do the skin cells that slough off daily” (124) says Patience of her dust-double – which did give the text a more modern feeling. (Robert Hooke coined the phrase “cells” in the latter half of the 17th century after looking at sections of cork under a microscope. Cell theory wasn’t really developed until the 19th though, and I’m wondering how common knowledge of cells was previously, even for closet intellectuals living in small communities such as Patience was and did.)

So, the story’s untethered in time. A fair enough choice, given the strictures of the novella form, and it doesn’t need to be pinned down to rely on expectation – for rely it does. Most readers will have an (already heavily underlined) perception of the times of witch-burning and religious oppression. They’ll have had Galileo and Miller’s The Crucible rammed down their throats in school, reinforcing the basic unfairness of intellectually corrupt power structures and the tendency towards mass paranoia and finger-pointing resorted to by at-risk populations. Take her not me; it’s her that’s the witch, and so on.

Readers only have to be marginally more aware to realise the gender politics at play in accusations of witch-women: the uncontrollable feminine and the moral disasters that follow (so sayeth Authority) when it breaks out of bounds, disobedient at heart and a danger to all around it. Worse when the women themselves believe it, subscribing to an ideology that hurts them when they follow and hurts them when they don’t. (Take her not me.) If Sorrow is untethered in time it may be because there’s just no room for any more tethering, for Slatter takes these common expectations of witch hunts and women and absolutely hammers them.

Let’s be clear: this is not a subtle book. (Subtlety’s not always the goal, of course, but when it’s so clearly eschewed it’s interesting to wonder why.) There’s no mention of Malleus Maleficarum but it hammers and hammers anyway, this story of a witch-hunt from the other side. And part of this hammering is really quite wonderful, but part of it is not.

Sorrow is very clearly a book of female experiences, of the lives and secrets of women. It’s the sort of story I’m predisposed to love. But the more I read, the more I began to wonder if the underlying world-building rests on anything but expectation.

This is complicated somewhat by the simple fact that there is validity in Slatter’s approach. Sexism was a powerful social force during the historical witch-hunts, and glossing that over would have had many readers rolling their eyes, I think. It’s perfectly reasonable, then, for Slatter to weave women’s experience of sexism so thoroughly into her story. It’s a realistic choice.

But. BUT. How far does realism go, I wonder? Sorrow’s genre is not historical fiction. It’s a fantasy story. And while I hesitate to bring up the trope, “Everything changes but the status of women”… if I’m honest, while I was reading there were times when I thought it.

Sexism develops from power structures. This isn’t news to anyone: when one gender holds the balance of power (physical, political, religious etc.) over another then an unhealthy relationship between the two develops. There are numerous examples of this in Sorrow: the murderous collaboration between the pastor and the doctor as they try to poison the pastor’s wife so she can be traded in for a younger model; the domestic violence in the Brautigan family; the burning and hanging of women who stray from prescribed behaviour.

If this were a historical novella, where Patience and the women like her were persecuted for herbal remedies and talking out of turn then the unrelenting focus on the power relationship that is sexism in those times would be absolutely appropriate.

The thing is, power relationships change when the balance of power changes, and that’s what Sorrow doesn’t address. (The other texts in the story’s wider universe may do so, but as I said, I haven’t read them.) Patience and Selke – and by inference all the other witches – don’t make their way through the world by having green thumbs and knowing what feverfew will do for a migraine. They have real, tangible power.

When Flora Brautigan has her hand chopped off, Selke makes her a new one. Admittedly the ingredients are a little creepy – living clay and grave dust, for instance – but once the magic’s over it’s a functional hand and essentially no-one can tell the difference.

In a pre-industrial, primarily agricultural peasant economy, how, how is this not a game-changer for the existing power structure? Imagine that you’re a peasant farmer, a tenant farmer with a family to feed, and you’re out doing your thing in the fields when you trip over your own scythe and lose a limb. There’s no social security, no national health. If you can’t work you don’t eat and your family starves. And yet Patience still has a pre-magic, historical-genre understanding of what this means for society.

Consider her (quite lengthy, given the total word count) musings on how male-dominated medicine will eventually push her own efforts out of local healthcare.

I’m the person Edda’s folk turn to for everyday remedies even when Doctor Herbeau is visiting. Yet I harbour no illusions: I am tolerated. If a physician ever deigns to make his home here, then I shall become something of an embarrassment, an object of superstition …. A medical man will spout fancy terms they do not understand, patronise them, and hand out tablets that give a little relief but no cure …. A doctor with his empty vows will steal their hearts and hollow heads from me, and they’ll dismiss the times I saved their children from fever, or given elderly parents a balm against lingering disease. (7-8)

The full argument, over two pages, is crucial because it comes so close to the beginning of the book (it starts on the third page of the story proper). I don’t believe Slatter has given it so much time and early space for no reason: it’s the gender-theme of the book in a nutshell. Patience is skilled and useful, but she is also perceived as inferior, and when a more socially acceptable (if less capable) Learned Man comes along, she’ll be pushed out. This, she opines, is typical behaviour: “It has happened before and I’ve no doubt it will happen again” (8).

In a magic-absent society – and I’m talking real, demonstrable magic here, not the accusations minus empirical evidence that passed for sorcerous inquiry in historical times / passes for it in historical genre – Patience would probably be right. An existing power structure that privileges men over women would very likely bulldoze her methods for his.

If you’re a peasant with a headache you’d probably go along with it. I mean, there’s the Learned Man come with his diploma from the outside, come with the backing of university and church and he uses a lot of impressive words and gives you pills and instruction. On the other hand there’s Patience, who likely gave you a whack on the arse as a kid and chatted with your old Mum about your toilet training. You see her rummaging in hedgerows sometimes, looking for bits of green.

You’ve got a headache. You take the pill and the headache goes away. I mean they do eventually, don’t they? It’s just a headache.

But if you’re a peasant who’s just had both arms lopped off at the wrist because your neighbour in the fields was careless with swinging his scythe, then I’m sorry but the doctor with his pills can fuck right off compared to a woman who can give you back your hands. Fear of hell is totally overthrown by the fear watching your family starve in a ditch after eviction because you couldn’t work enough to pay rent on the farm.

That’s what magic does. It changes the balance of power. A change in the balance of power changes the power structure.

Always.

But not here.

Magic in Sorrow is deeply, undeniably powerful. It can recreate lost limbs, restore perfect function. It can even recreate a whole person well enough to fool others (as when Patience’s dust-double mimics her practised slipping-under-radar, behaving as expected under the most trying of circumstances). Magic can bring the dead back even if only to half-life; it can change people into animals and back again. Against the scientific and industrial capacity of mediaeval or early modern times it’s the power equivalent of giving grenades and a machine gun to a Neanderthal while the rest of them are hitting each other with clubs, but none of that fucking matters because in fantasy everything changes but the status of women.

And it’s such a shame because there was a point in this highly-feminine text where it looked like Sorrow had a handle on how power could play with gender. Patience has a giant dog who’s actually the forced transfiguration of a man she loved, a man who discovered what she was and spurned her. Patience, however, wanted what she wanted, a loyal and loving companion, and used her magic to enforce her wants. It’s such an inversion of gender expectation – often in fantasy, it’s the woman compelled to stay, her body shape forcibly controlled (see, for example: selkie). But Patience has power, and that alters not only Gideon’s body and fate but his emotions as well. That’s as far as it goes, however, and the clear next step lies untaken by the narrative, which otherwise sticks against all odds to the solidly gender-expected.

I wrote earlier that Of Sorrow and Such was a story of female experience, of the lives and secrets of women. And it is – but I can’t help but think, if only those experiences had come out of choice rather than compulsion. Instead, it’s the outside male threat that causes women to band together – as if they wouldn’t do it out of liking and shared interest and common cause. That threat is everywhere, from the domestic (how many brothers here have sexual designs on their sisters?) to the wider world (the witch-hunting churchmen).

Those churchmen. You know what I’d do, if I were the church trying to neutralise the effect of real magic – demonstrable, useful, potentially highly popular magic – on my preferred power structure? I’d engulf it, like I did with pagan festivals and midwinter feasts. I’d make it mine.

You can replace a severed limb, and you can do it where everyone can see and have no doubt of what you can do? Congratulations, pious lady! You’re a miracle worker, touched by the saints. We’ve a comfortable little anchorage for you, free food, a couple of servants, religious services every day. Your skills can get us prestige and cash. Not that we’d have you turn away the poor, of course not. Donations of any kind can help support Mother Church. Wait. You don’t want to? So sad. Don’t you have a daughter? (A brother, a husband…) Surely you’d never let anything happen to them, would you?

Witch-hunts for burning become witch-hunts for haven. Still creepy, still with issues of consent and suitable, imposed behaviour. Still with lopsided gender relations, the sexism underlined and women pushed into little boxes – but boxes they can shape themselves, because the acknowledgement of tangible power only increases it. The story’s still the same, but also different. Nothing changes perfectly, but it does change.

Because that’s what changing power – real power – does to power structures. It pries them open in new ways. It never, ever, ever leaves them static.

There is a great deal to like about Sorrow, but it is static, and the world-building does seem politically, socially shallow. Something informed primarily by historical settings and historical genre, never-quite-believing that it’s fantasy enough to really push that fantasy as far as it can go.

There were times, reading this novella, that I was charmed. There were times I admired it (nearly all of which were related to the bloody-minded practicality of Patience, who I really do enjoy though she’s not all that nice and has spurts of actual evil). The characterisation is undeniably fantastic. I got a better sense of the characters in this novella than I have the characters in a lot of actual novels. But once you’ve made the link of woman-power-bad in the world of Edda’s Meadow – and it’s impossible to miss doing so – then the plot is fairly obvious and the world-building takes on more than a whiff of paint-by-numbers. Writing about gender is a laudable goal, but genre I think has the capability of illuminating that discussion more than it does here. In speculative fiction, one should be speculative.

Review: “The Stars Seem So Far Away” by Margrét Helgadóttir

starsFox Spirit Books, 2015.

This review first appeared a little over six months ago in Strange Horizons.

 

The Stars Seem So Far Away is a narrative of northern futures. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic warming world, where the ice caps have melted and plague has turned the population into starving refugees. Those who can flee north, to the scattered Arctic islands, where they live close lives of deprivation and increasing infection. Also of isolation – from each other, and from the other living things that once shared the planet. All other animal species are extinct, apart from odd individual animals grown in labs, generally for the wealthy. Similarly plant life is severely limited: “Only a few kinds of vegetables, fruit, berries and spices existed now, grown in artificial soil and dried or tinned for mass distribution around the world” (26). And as Nora thinks, “No land was green anymore” (109). This naturally has ecological and social consequences, although these are not always as fully explored as they might be (see later comments).

One technology lost for lack of fuel, but in the early stages of revival, is that associated with space exploration. The stars might seem out of reach, but human colonies remain amidst the stars and the possibility of exploration, of leaving the Earth for a better life, is woven throughout the text.

Helgadóttir presents this world in a series of interconnected short stories. There’s a small core cast of characters who interact in different groups at different times, and their stories slowly converge near the end of the book. It’s an interesting structure, and one I enjoyed, but it’s double-edged.

Weaving a narrative through what are essentially fragments allows the author to order the stories to emphasise, for instance, theme or imagery. The last page of “Lost Bond” tells of the disappearance of a ghost fox, while the next story, “Aida”, begins with the titular character believing she’s seen her dead parents. This can give a sense of connection over initially disparate stories, a sort of tying-together, but it also means that readers have to cope with gaps between the stories. This isn’t an atypical strategy for any author – readers don’t want to see the boring bits, say Aida washing up after each meal – but sometimes the gaps can feel too large. This happens when crucial choices, fundamental character moments, happen off-screen. There was an instance of this in The Stars Seem So Far Away that did stick out. Bjørg initially refuses to go into space with her lover Simik; she is afraid of what will happen to the isbos, her pet polar bears (she believes they’ll be shot without her, and she may be right). In the end it’s Simik who decides to stay, but when the two of them pop up again in a later story, they’re preparing to go into space. I can understand Helgadóttir not wanting to show the decision-making process twice, but it’s still jarring. A lot of Bjørg’s story is concerned with those bears – she raises them from cubs, and they’re one of the closest emotional bonds she has. Yet that bond becomes disposable almost between stories, and for a collection themed so much about connection, about staving off disconnection, this is a discordant note.

I’ve seen that the prose of this book has been praised by other reviewers. The back cover alone describes it as “kinetic” and “beautifully written”. I’m not sure that I’m in total agreement. The Stars Seem So Far Away is certainly competently written, no complaints there. I found the language quite plain, though: sparse and strong, often quite muscular. There can be a beauty in that, but I’m afraid I didn’t much see it. Consider the following, from page 17 (the point at which I flipped to the back cover to reread the praise of prose):

One massive door revealed a dark tunnel. The mine. They couldn’t see the end of it. It probably went deep into the mountain. The other doors were either locked or opened to empty rooms. The whole place seemed abandoned. Simik frowned. How odd. In one of the rooms they found an instrument panel. Hurrying, they stuck some of the explosives under it and scattered several more around the place, but mostly around the door to the mine.

Prose is subjective, of course, but I would have liked, overall, to see more description. This is a different time – a different world, almost. That difference should be sensory, but here the emotional connection to setting seemed to be reserved more for the descriptions of space, for the environment of yearning. (Roar’s passion for space is one of the strongest emotional beats of the book.)

Possibly less subjective is an assessment of the world-building. Too often in speculative fiction I see world-building used as an end in itself, not as a vehicle for story. Too often I find myself closing a book in irritation because it’s been overstuffed by this mania for detail. So you’ll understand my surprise when for once my main complaint is the opposite: there’s too little world-building here.

Granted, The Stars Seem So Far Away is a short book. One cannot reasonably expect 160 pages to be an encyclopaedia. But, as an old professor of mine once said, “Brevity is next to Godliness, but clarity never faileth.” The world-building here succeeds in brevity, but fails in clarity. My reading experience is constantly undermined by questions – and not of the “what’s going to happen next?” variety.

Let me give what I found to be the most glaring example. Another of the primary themes of the text is migration – the movement to refugia, the escape to a cooler world, away from the heat and thirst of the continental temperate and tropical regions. Fuel is essentially unavailable, so most movement is by sailboat. Most of the refugia are islands. People tend to live on coastlines. And they’re on the verge of starvation, all of them – so where, where, where is any mention of fishing? Or algal collection, or synthesis of edible phytoplankton? Nowhere, that’s where.

Nora and Aida try to sail to Greenland with their dog, Tarik. They’re short on food, which is exclusively tinned vegetables (grown in artificial soil, if you recall), mostly served, it seems, in the form of broth or soup. And no-one thinks to run a line over the side? They stop, in one of the stories, at “The Women’s Island”, where the three inhabitants keep fat and happy by slaughtering the sailors that land there. Fair enough, I was expecting cannibalism eventually – but are there no shellfish on the beaches? Are there no fish? I can understand finding fishing a tiresome endeavour, but isn’t it better than butchery?

It would be one thing if there were an explanation, or a nod to an explanation, of why the seas are so empty (or even simple acknowledgement that they are). There’s the odd mention of rare fish farms (often reserved for the rich, I think) but no mention of the two thirds of the planet that’s covered in water and why it’s just so barren. This isn’t a missing detail: this is a giant gaping hole in the middle of the text, with no acknowledgement that the hole’s even there. I’m struggling to think of an apocalyptic series of events that destroys all land and marine life, bar humans. It’s one thing losing, say, elephants to massive climate change. It’s quite another to lose plankton, or algae.

This absolute dismissal of the entire marine ecosystem is just bizarre. I don’t understand it – perhaps we are meant to infer, by the absence of any reference to the contrary, that the sea is sterile. Okay. My inner biologist is revolting but let’s take it as a matter of faith: there’s nothing living in the oceans. It would be a beautiful contradiction – that the birthplace of life on Earth is utterly barren, but the stars are full of future. That would emphasise Helgadóttir’s sense of migration, of movement and process – but I wonder if I’m assigning meaning that was never intended.

The question of flesh of any kind is a thorny one. Meat I can understand: it’s energy intensive to produce – especially in comparison to plants – so I don’t expect the characters to be eating it. And indeed, I can only recall one (non-cannibal) reference, where Bjørg is left “a plate of bread and dried meat” (133). But Bjørg is also the caretaker of a group of polar bears. A polar bear is an obligate carnivore – so where are they getting their food? Bjørg lives in a seed vault. And alright, the bears are genetically engineered. They might be vegetarian. But the text hints not – they seem, at times, on the verge of stalking human prey. They’ve certainly killed humans before: Bjørg’s primary responsibility is to keep the vault safe and unplundered, and any incursion onto the island is met with deadly force, both from her and her bears. Yet the text also states that she burns the resulting bodies (“the corpses she’d had to burn” 122). There’s a food store for the bears, but never any mention as to what these large, apex predators are actually eating. If there were any indication of marine life, I could buy them prowling the shore for fish and walrus – but there isn’t. The bears just seem to magically exist.

To be fair, there is an undercurrent of magic and myth to the text. And it’s when Helgadóttir focuses on this that the text is strongest, in my opinion. Possibly the strongest image is that of the ghost fox, who acts as a guide for Simik in “Lost Bonds”. The story opens in flashback with Simik as a young boy, being instructed by an elder on the spiritual bonds between humans and animals. “They said that men needed the animals to lead them in the right direction and protect them against dangers …. They also said that wise men, the healers, needed the animals and their spirits to guide them into other worlds, in their quest for truth” (12). These bonds are now lost with the extinction of nearly every non-human species. “All I know is that when the animals disappeared, not only were men left alone and unprotected, but the wise men could no longer help people” (12). Simik’s connection with the spirit fox is one of renewal, of rebirth, and the growing sense of possibility isn’t checked by his discovery of the corporeal fox, dead and abandoned in a cage. Contrary to the elder’s belief, the potential for connection remains in Simik – and in such a disconnected, fragmentary world, this potential is a crucially important thing. It’s a genuinely moving moment, one mirrored later by Simik and Bjørg as they view the skeletal remains of a whale, once trapped in a too-small pool at a long-abandoned aquarium. (Although it’s a moment that’s later undermined when Simik chooses to forgo the bond he could have formed with the bears in favour of the totally animal-less journeying of the space shuttle: how much does Simik value the return of this very rare bond when he’s happy to toss it away, potentially forever?)

This magic seeps into the text, although not always convincingly. There are places it genuinely works – Simik and the ghost fox, for one – and places where it seems like the easy hook: flashy and insubstantial. Genetic laboratories grow what the conservation movement today would call iconic species: polar bears, a whale. Sexy species, to go alongside the more usual occasional dog and human being. One can see why Helgadóttir’s referencing these creations: they’re magic moments in the text, little explosions of diversity and enchantment. Yet I found myself wondering: if they can construct a killer whale, why can’t they make some carrots? Or a batch of plankton to chuck in the ocean, make at least an attempt to re-establish an ecosystem – even if only an exploitable one. (No wonder efforts to repopulate the ocean with whales failed – what were they supposed to eat?)

But the stars are just so far away, and next to that the practicalities of building a world (for the inhabitants, for the author) just don’t seem that attractive. Unless, like me, you’re leaden-minded.

This is an ocean world. There’s wonder in that, too.

Except there isn’t, not here. And the book ends with the bulk of the main characters planning to head out into space, despite the fact that they’re all not much more than children. Because there’s still a space programme running, with people running it – and they’ve been working for it and up to it for a long time. So there’s got to be people in the surrounding community who have been training in relevant scientific disciplines for years… but the astronaut places go to a handful of kids who do well in a crash course, because… well, because they’re our protagonists. It’s the magic again, the miracle moment – and again, I can see why Helgadóttir is doing it. It’s metaphor, the youth of humanity migrating onwards, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense and it borders on the cheap.

Look, there’s a lot to like here. I admire the imagination behind this book: the ideas are interesting, the attraction for outer space and exploration profound. I genuinely liked the structure, and most of the characters. But I can’t help feeling that, despite Helgadóttir’s unquestionable achievements, The Stars Seem So Far Away would have been measurably improved by additional material and another draft.

Review: “Navigatio” by Patrick Holland

navigatioIllustrations by Junko Azukawa

Melbourne, Australia: Transit Lounge Publishing, 2014

 

This review first appeared a little over six months ago in Strange Horizons.

 

In the sixth century the Irish Saint Brendan, according to legend, set out in a sailboat on what would end up as a seven-year search for Paradise. This Voyage of Saint Brendan, commemorated in a number of manuscripts from the Middle Ages, is a fantastical travelogue re-imagined by Australian author Patrick Holland in his recent book, Navigatio, beautifully illustrated by Junko Azukawa.

Navigatio includes the usual fantastic creatures—mermaids and dragons and witches, etc.—but they are temporary things, stepping stones within the text. That text is a fluid one, both in terms of voyage and structure. Holland doesn’t stick to Irish legend: Brendan’s curragh drifts into future worlds as well as fantastic ones; different waters and hemispheres, Ireland to Vietnam. There are skyscrapers in the search for Paradise, boats made of iron as well as ox-hides.

It is a fluidity with an underlying structure. Brendan starts the voyage in several different ways, one after the other, as if they’re all equally valid. The islands he visits on his search tumble over each other and backwards, and the text is organised into many intercut stories, interrupted by illustrations and the occasional page of poetry or wordplay. (This results in a very aesthetic read, although one has to be in the right mood to enjoy it best, I think, and that mood may well be contemplative.) The main interest of the book, however, rests in that underlying structure, which is very well executed if not entirely original.

That fragmented structure, the way it rewrites and re-imagines, put me very much in mind of Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. Holland doesn’t have the same lightness of touch, I think—his writing has in it more stony tones than whimsy, and very little humour—but the multifaceted take on reality is strongly similar. Brendan’s journey, cut into interleaved chapter-themes of “Hell,” “Light,” and so on, mimics almost exactly Calvino’s interwoven “Cities and the dead,” “Cities and the sky” . . .  organisation.

Brendan owes a lot to Calvino’s Marco Polo. In Cities, Polo describes to Kublai Khan all the places he has been, although the cities are fantastic and become ever more so, to the point where Polo doesn’t even travel any more. He just stays with the Khan and keeps describing these exotic locations, and the Khan comes to understand that these invisible cities, these places of empire are a single city: Venice, the home and origin of his guest, which Marco Polo has all the time been describing (“Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice” [trans. William Weaver, Harcourt, Inc., 1974, p. 86]). Note, for comparison:

All Islands are one. There is only one Man abroad the wild seas, only one shore he lands upon and leaves, only one home he seeks and never reaches . . . no matter how far you sail you cannot leave. (157)

In Navigatio, it’s the islands and the dream-state nature of the encounters that get the bulk of the characterisation. Brendan himself is fairly thinly drawn. Granted, it’s a short book, but the human-shaped Brendan is essentially a placeholder, as much a vessel as his curragh. As all cities are Venice, all islands are Brendan: those with monsters, those with barren rock, those associated with uncertainty and wonder and abandonment. This gives insight into his spiritual mindset, but less so into his underlying personality, which might be most accurately described as dampening. (One imagines he could make for either a comfortable or a very uncomfortable travelling companion.)

One point at which his personality really stood out for me was a section dealing with the crew’s encounter with a dragon. At first sight they turn and row away as fast as they can: well, fair enough. It’s the sensible option. I would have done the same. But when asked, Brendan opines that it was right for him to run away. Doing otherwise would have been self-aggrandisement. “I ran away from vainglory,” (31) he says, and that’s the point where I rolled my eyes and thought Of course you did, you smug bastard.

One of the crew members agrees with me. Padraigh is sceptical. “That is easy to say,” (34) he smirks, and Brendan apologises for the seeming temerity of his original claim. But Holland promptly turns this seeming abashment on its head: the dragon gives chase, and Brendan banishes it—as he clearly could have done in the first place. “Padraigh lowered his eyes when Brendan looked his way” (35).

To me, this passage was the first of very few times that I felt an emotional connection with any of the characters. It raises, by necessity, a couple of questions. First is Brendan himself. Can one actually like the man? He might be running from vainglory but he’s not exactly humble. Again, fair enough. I like a lot of people—a lot of characters—who aren’t humble. No. I can’t say I do like him. Perhaps this is the function of a saint: to define humanity by its mimicry, to take on the face and form of a person, sanctity stretched over skeleton. Still. I don’t like him, and I don’t trust him. This may be a result of reader bias—as an atheist, I am strongly predisposed to scepticism—but it’s hard to connect with someone I feel no emotional connection to, someone who seems to be written so metaphorically.

This is where the second question comes in: am I the only one who thinks so? Padraigh is a version of Patrick, and it’s tempting to wonder just how much author self-insertion plays a part here. One can never truly know, bar an admission from the author. That being said, Padraigh is the one member of the crew—so briefly defined as individuals, so collectively amorphous—besides Brendan who seems to have a distinct philosophical viewpoint. Padraigh, “whose heart was unknown and who troubled Brendan” (9), Padraigh who “did not believe in the devil” (15).

Holland is a religious man—a convert to the Greek Orthodox Church—and one presumes that his conversion came with questions and doubts and difficulties of its own. If the various islands that Brendan sails to are in part reflections of himself, then it’s not a stretch to wonder if Padraigh is also one of Brendan’s many parts. (Or if Brendan is one of Padraigh’s . . . )

In the “Hell” chapter-thread, Padraigh calls the devil to the boat. He laughs while he does so—his disbelief allows him the luxury of mockery. Yet when all other members of the crew fall asleep, Satan does indeed come to Brendan, the sole remaining sailor awake on the boat. The conversations between Satan and Brendan—the temptations, the truths—are the meat of the “Hell” chapters. Crucially, these conversations are always solitary. None of the men witness them—including Padraigh. When—and only when—Padraigh’s scepticism is removed from the “Hell” text, Satan takes his place. To what extent they are the same is a many-layered question.

He’s a tricky character, Satan—but although he’s undoubtedly a threat to Brendan’s ideals he never strikes me as particularly menacing. Pretty much the worst thing he does is tell Brendan the truth, when he catches him looking at the stars.

“Indeed, you know the sun does not rise and fall around you out of devotion, what you do not know is that it is bigger than a hundred worlds, and it is smaller than the biggest suns by a thousand times, and there are more of those in the universe than there are drops of water in this ocean. So many more there is no number that will fit it. And their light shines on infinite desolation. What then of your significance under these cold and hateful skies, brother? Believe this, we are alone!” (40-41)

Brendan isn’t particularly blinded by science—he claims “the heart of a poet” (41) as reason enough to dismiss this truthful argument. It’s even more ambiguous when the biggest untruth in the text comes from Brendan himself—on one particular island, he consoles an old man and his daughter with the lie that there is nothing good upon the ocean, that they are better off where they are. He means it as a kindness, but it isn’t hard to see that he feels his own dreams, his own desires, are both unsuitable for and unattainable by others. (Can one be a saint without condescension? Without the perception of condescension? Navigatio is the story of a saint, but it’s hard to read and not wonder if it is also a comment on sanctity and the nature thereof—what does it mean to be a holy man, and how can other people actively engage with such?) Satan’s truths are not Brendan’s—there is a separation between them. It’s non-overlapping magisteria all the way, essentially, but Brendan’s refusal to meaningfully engage in the truth that Satan speaks is a clever way of underlining the novel’s structure and tone, which are poetic to the core, privileging dream and metaphor and fragment in a non-linear manuscript. This is not a place for telescopes and the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.

Indeed, there are so many beginnings and endings that it can be difficult for the reader to parse out an actual storyline. The text thus reflects the voyage. Brendan’s curragh has sails and oars, but against the might of wind and waves these can prove ineffective, as when the mast breaks during a storm. Much of the voyage is therefore a deliberate giving up of control: the sails are taken down and the oars are put away and the curragh is left to float on currents, an object of fate. This leads to a journey full of dead ends and dead islands, a strange and irregular voyage to Paradise. One can only presume that this is itself a reflection of the religious journey. (Not having experienced such a thing, I can’t say for certain this is so—although science itself can be a dead-end experience, where hypotheses and new experiments disprove old facts.) As such, I can understand over-valuing the linear experience—as does Brendan, I suppose, and Holland himself.

Or perhaps we are not where I thought, but at one of the points that makes up one of the three strokes, or a speck in the map’s blankness. And the lines mean a place larger than the Earth and the known worlds. I have spent thousands of hours poring over this map, trying to find my place. Sadly, I am successful each and every night. This map is perfectly accurate and true. And, like you say, perfectly deceitful. For like the universe it accommodates all theories, and I have no notion of its scale. (131)

Review: “The Swan Book” by Alexis Wright

18247932Giramondo Publishing, Sydney, 2013.

This review first appeared a little over six months ago in Strange Horizons.

 

Everything in her mind became mucked up. This is the kind of harm the accumulated experience of an exile will do to you . . . (p. 14)

This is a book of exile, of what it means to be kept apart—from land, from community, from stories. It is also a story of what exile does to land and community and stories. And because it is a story of exile, it’s fitting that the story follows the life of an outsider.

Oblivia, so called because her true identity has effectively been lost, is a mute girl-child living in the north of Australia. Her varying statuses of child and victim and Aborigine (the author is herself Aboriginal, a member of the Waanyi nation which lives in the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria) meld together, reinforcing, implicitly, the sense of disconnection Oblivia faces throughout her life.

Wright underlines this disconnection through her choice of genre. The Swan Book isn’t set in modern day Australia. Rather, it’s a story of future days, science fiction underpinned with magical realism, in which climate change has ravaged the globe and Australia—still fractured in itself, in its customs—is primed for a third wave of colonisation in the form of climate refugees. This speculative setting allows Wright to play with the idea of mirrors and distance, of how the stories of others are blended in—or, more importantly, how they fail to blend in—with those of existing populations. This is a fairly pressing concern in modern Australia, but when the “tyranny of distance” becomes temporal as well as geographical, Wright’s ability to explore social and cultural disconnection is enhanced. This is particularly true when it comes to Oblivia.

The insularity of Oblivia’s life, of her dreamscape, is punctuated by her continuing physical isolation. In the swamp that comes to be called Swan Lake, she is the most isolated—indeed, her life is a series of isolations designed to keep her separate. As a child she is gang-raped by a group of local youths—the older children of her own people, her own community—and she has to live with seeing them walk around afterwards, still a part of that community in a way that she isn’t anymore. The rape is never described, only alluded to, but readers can see the impact from the consequences. Traumatised, Oblivia escapes to the hollow trunk of an old gum tree and falls asleep there—for days or years, the text is never really clear on this point. She’s still a child when found, but her parents have grown old and don’t recognise her so Oblivia stays with the woman who found her. Bella Donna is a refugee from the northern world who has come over the seas to Australia, fleeing from the climate change that has made her own country a frozen wasteland. She tries to raise the child, but it’s uphill work. Oblivia is half-wild and totally mute. She has lost even her name, and “Oblivia” is given to her as substitute.

No sound comes out of her mouth since she had decided not to speak, that it was not worth speaking. She would rather be silent since the last word she had spoken when scared out of her wits, the day when her tongue had screeched to a halt with dust flying everywhere, and was left screaming Ahhhhhh! through the bushland, when she fell down the hollow of the tree. (p. 19)

This choice to be mute is an interesting one—for it is a choice, and one of the very few the text allows her. It’s also a sustained choice. In any other story, this might lead to a triumphant moment of speech, where Oblivia reclaims her original name and denounces those who assaulted her. Not so in The Swan Book. Oblivia’s stubborn disengagement with the outside world, her total refusal of it in favour of the swans and her own inner landscape is arguably the most consistent facet of her character. She does come to speak occasionally, but it’s never a moment of triumph, never an unmasking of herself or of any other.

Both Oblivia and Bella Donna live in the Aboriginal community, but apart. Bella Donna, of course, lacks the common experience of culture. Her lands are gone, her stories are foreign. Oblivia is just a reminder of failure, an existential reproach. It is no wonder they keep (are kept) apart. In the swamp, they live in the old and rusting hull of an abandoned ship, and in this ship Bella Donna tells stories of swans and sailing, of the long journey over waters to the climate refuge that is now her home. Yet this fractured, failing community is in itself an isolated thing—it is less a community than a camp, limited and administered by the Australian army for the supposed benefit of its inhabitants.

Swamp people were not ignorant of white people who, after all, had not turned up yesterday. Having lived it all, they claimed to have at least ten, or possibly more generations of knowledge, packed up tight in their mentality about white people doing good for them.(p. 22)

Oblivia is therefore the most powerless individual in the most powerless community. It’s hardly any wonder that she turns in upon herself; rolls echidna-like into a mental ball, and refuses engagement with anything but swans and story. Yet stories collide—both the foreign stories of swans, and the myths of social development.

As a child, before the rape and the gum tree and the old abandoned hull, the girl who would become Oblivia had been destined for an arranged marriage to the boy who would become Warren Finch. Finch is a rising star in Australian politics, an Aboriginal boy made good, his life and education arranged from childhood as an experiment to produce an indigenous wunderkind, a sort of cross between Moses and Mandela. And it works—by the time Finch comes to Swan Lake, looking for his promised bride, he’s an international figure of folk hero standards, on the brink of becoming Prime Minister.

Oblivia, totally unwilling, is carted off first to his ancestral lands, and then to the lands of government. She’s primped up as if a doll, dressed in a wedding gown with her fiancé’s white attendants doing her hair and nails and transforming her into a perfect vision of a First Lady, and there’s nothing Oblivia can do, isolated from her land, from her people and the stories that sustained her. The story she’s in now is one of supporting parts, of a girl on the sidelines of a boy-makes-good tale, and there’s no place for swans here. Her wedding gift is the literal destruction of Swan Lake; the army camp closed, the swamp filled in.

The fiery woman worked her fingers to the bone to get into the girl’s brain, as though this was where one removed grime, salt, vegetation, blood of dead animals, lice, and whatever thoughts about having different origins she had brought into the house. (p. 221)

Oblivia’s new home is more isolated even than gum trees. She’s kept in a tower on the edge of a city, where the enormous rising tides of climate change periodically cut her off and send waves through the streets. How she and the swans find each other, how they return home, and how Oblivia integrates/discards her life as First Lady make up the remainder of the book, but Oblivia is always, always isolated. Her function, almost, is to exist on the edge of society and be held up (as pariah, as victim, as example in a manipulated southern Camelot) and in this she is largely a metaphor—and a passive one at that.

Outside of her choice to exclude speech and her mutually clinging relationship with swans, it’s hard to mistake Oblivia for anything but a largely passive character. She has so little agency, and it’s only towards the end of the book, as she leaves her tower-life behind and begins to trek north in an attempt to find her home (long gone, bull-dozed and the lake and swans all gone) that she begins to take an active role in the shaping of her own life. Usually this is a characteristic I find off-putting—especially so in female characters, if I’m honest, because of the stereotype of passivity, of victimised and reactionary behaviour so often hung upon women in literature—but in The Swan Book this is something that for once doesn’t bother me. It’s clearly the result of deliberate choice, not thoughtless typecasting—and that choice again underlines the theme of exile, of isolation and the problem of how to live when land and home and culture are no longer steady things to stand upon. Why should Oblivia be active in her resistance, when everything is so rigged against her? Why shouldn’t she fall into passivity, into reactivity and escape?

She forgets to act when memories quickly regain control of her brain, and instead of fighting, she escapes with a flood of thoughts running back along the song-lines to the swamp, and the language inside her goes bolting down the tree with all the swans in the swamp following her. (p. 172)

It’s impossible not to view this book through the lens of race relations. The relationship between white and Aboriginal Australia is long and uncomfortable, an often bloody conflict. Today Aboriginal Australians are grossly over-represented in the many negative metrics—poverty, crime, lack of education—resulting from this history.

This isn’t all resolved by science fiction, for Wright’s imagined future is not a hopeful one. Australia may be suffering (and suffering less) from climate change, the premier politician and saviour figure of the nation may be Aboriginal, but the more things change . . .

The gap between white and Aboriginal Australia, the total lack of understanding, the segregation of population is not all that different from today. Only the set dressing is different. Even Finch is, in many ways, an abject failure. The product of a dream, the desire to produce a perfectly educated, perfectly integrated man, he still can’t escape the gravity of national colonisation. Finch steamrolls over everything he doesn’t like, and it’s hard to sympathise with him—well-meaning though he might be—in his attempt to forcibly acclimatise Oblivia to his life, his lands, his determination of how her life should be organised and experienced. After this I found it very hard to like him, but then I was never sure, reading, if I was meant to do anything other than appreciate him. Finch is designed for appreciation, after all, built for it from the ground up, and he’s in many ways a more difficult character than his betrothed.

Still, ambiguous antagonist though he might be, it’s important to have a character like him. He represents as much as Swan Lake the conflicts within Aboriginal Australia: how to respond to colonisation, how to react to the overwhelming stories of others, how to get your community to react to them . . . there are layers built into these conflicts, and there are no ideal solutions come on the wings of swans to wrap the story up in a neat little bow. Still, open-ended and difficult as the book may be, I hesitate to ever describe it as messy. It’s clearly tightly constructed, the product of long thought and erudition, the ambiguities and frustrations and fallings-off deliberate choices.

The Swan Book is complex, challenging, and the finest book I’ve read for quite some time: deeply original and vivid. It’s something I see myself going back to time and again, and if it’s not at least long-listed for the Man Booker in the coming year there’s no justice in the world.

Spoiler alert: six months after this review was published, I can tell you there is no justice in the world. Boo. Boo! But it fits with the themes and topic of the book, sadly.

Review: “The Voice of the Dolphins” by Leo Szilard

szilardThe Voice of the Dolphins and Other Stories (Expanded Edition)

By Leo Szilard

Published by Stanford University Press, 1992

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I admit, I’ve always had an interest in the Manhattan Project. It’s a fascinating period of history – as part of my PhD research, I went on a trip to Los Alamos to write a collection of poetry based around the Project’s wartime work. Thus, I’m already familiar with Szilard – arguably the man who more than anyone else saw the potential of (and the potential horror of) atomic war, and realised the need for Allied research. It was Szilard who went to Einstein, who wrote with him the letter to Roosevelt that kickstarted the Manhattan Project. He also drafted the petition that argued for a bloodless demonstration of the atomic bomb as a means of ending the war, rather than its ultimate use on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Knowing this, I wonder if I would have recognised the author of this collection, had I found it with the author’s name whited out. I can’t honestly say that I would – but I would have been close, I think. The Voice of the Dolphins is not a work written by what I would call a “natural writer” – someone whose prime concern is the linking together of word and image, someone concerned with the aesthetics of a sentence. For someone who is so associated with the written word – with letters and petitions – Szilard doesn’t have a great deal of fluidity in his language. Of course, he was multilingual where I am not so that is perhaps an ungenerous assessment.

That being said: if this book had come to me, apparently authorless, it wouldn’t be hard to perceive the kind of man who wrote it. The concern with failure is so profound, the nuclear issue so pronounced, that it’s easy to see in its pages the stamp of someone who could have been involved in the Manhattan Project. Add to that the historical context of the stories – so concerned with the Cold War, with the relationship between Russia and the USA – that the provenance is almost certain.

Szilard tried to publish some of the stories in this collection in fictional and non-fictional fora. Once one reads “The Voice of the Dolphins” it’s clear why. Having failed to prevent war-time use of the atomic bomb, Szilard is trying to develop a blueprint of a global community where nuclear weapons can be limited in their use, where the international debate over their use becomes a catalyst for peace. Some of it, looking back, seems almost pitifully naive: the insistence that a nuclear power give two weeks’ notice of intent to the city that they plan to bomb, so that the inhabitants of that may safely evacuate. Reading that now seems almost laughable… but then I thought of Szilard, writing desperately away until his hand cramped, trying to find a way out of the maze that he himself conceived and helped to build. I thought of how (as described in Bernstein’s comprehensive introduction) he sent copies of that story to a number of American officials and politicians, how he had the story translated into Russian so that he could get it to Khruschev… the poor man. You could weep for him, you really could.

It’s not a large collection, only six stories. A couple of them are more typically science fiction, regarding alien perceptions of Earth under/after a global nuclear war that at least in “Report on Grand Central Terminal” has left the planet bereft of human life. “Xram thinks that there had been a war fought between inhabitants of the two continents, in which both sides were victorious” (145).

Once can infer that this is Szilard’s nightmare, the end-point of his work, wrought all too well – and all too necessarily, to make the fear of it just that much more bitter. No matter how Szilard must have dreaded the possible nuclear future he helped to build, he also knew that such a future was coming, and better it not come at the hands of the Nazis. Such are our choices made: easy choices, and easy to be right in. (To be wrong in.)

The bulk of the remaining stories – including “The Voice of the Dolphins”, the largest and most significant of all the pieces – outline ways to avoid this future, the lack of it, the alien curiosity. They are, essentially, alternate histories. In “Dolphins”, there is a scientific breakthrough: communication between humans and dolphins is ostensibly established, and the latter are found to be clearly and deeply intelligent. The dolphins then guide humanity through political and scientific changes that ameliorate the risk of nuclear way and eventually lead to global peace and prosperity. The interest here is in Szilard’s hypothetical sequence of events – and it very nearly is a simple sequence. As I commented above, one should not look for a particularly literary value here. The value lies in the historical context, in the thought experiment of a great thinker, set in the environment caused by his life’s work.

Review: “The Time Roads” by Beth Bernobich

the-time-roadsTime was like sunlight pouring in all directions, susceptible to prisms or mirrors, or even a child’s hand.”

I can’t deny it: I’ve been waiting for this one for a while. I find the idea of time travel a fascinating one. It’s pure speculation, in a genre known for it.

The Time Roads takes an interesting approach, both structurally and in-story. It’s not a novel so much as four intertwined novellas, taking place over a 17 year period and in different time streams. This is something that could be confusing for readers, but I appreciate the fact that Bernobich doesn’t cut down into chunks. She expects the reader to follow along, and given that I don’t enjoy being pandered to and explained at this gets extra marks from me.

The novellas are set in an alternate political history, one where the relationship between Ireland and Britain has been flipped. Ireland is a great power, and is experiencing (ever more) trouble with its dependencies across the water. This is set against a wider backdrop – both continental and global – of shifting governments and loyalties.

The Golden Octopus (beginning in 1897, but spanning several years) starts things off, with the introduction of Áine, the Queen of Ireland and the commander of her guard, Aidrean. While the latter is off investigating a series of murders, the young Áine is fascinated with the scientist-mathematician Breandan, who is researching his way to viable time travel. A Flight of Numbers Fantastique Strange (1902) explores the murder investigation from another perspective. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice to say by the time it’s all done the timeline has shifted. Ars Memoriae (1904) returns to Aidrean, who’s sent off to the continent to investigate various plots and treacheries, and it’s here the possibility of altered universes becomes a political tool rather than a personal quest. Finally, back in Ireland – The Time Roads (1914) – Áine is dealing with Anglian rebellion, where politics and time travel are making a giant, murderous mess of her country.

Of particular interest is Bernobich’s conception of altered time – particularly the fact that when time changes, memories of the (alternate) life intrude on the individual as he or she goes about their business. This, as one might imagine, is a highly disconcerting occurrence. It’s the kind of thing that could make one doubt their sanity – but it also allows the characters extra knowledge with which to navigate cause and effect. And to compare their lives before and after, as it were.

One of the characters that strikes me here is Ó Cadhla. An advisor of Áine’s, he’s very much the gruff old uncle figure. He also has a dead daughter, Maeve, who is “resurrected” when timelines shift. Well, good. We see his grief, we feel for him, but everything gets fixed – in his world, anyway. I can’t help but wonder about the parents, if there are any, who have the memories of a live child and the reality of a dead one. What would they do to get hold of a time machine and alter their reality? Unsurprising, then, that personal motive – saving of parents rather than child – is a factor. Push down on one end of a see-saw, and the other end come up.

This emphasis on hinted-at possibilities, in the roads-not-taken, can also be seen relationship between Áine and Aidrean. This is in some ways fundamental to the book as a whole. It’s the strand that ties the novellas together – more so than the time travel to my mind. And yet it reflects that travel thematically: it is a relationship of potential. Implicit in it is the idea of possibility, of different paths and lost potential as their mutual attraction simmers away but never quite comes to fruition. I don’t say this as a criticism. It isn’t. The Golden Octopus seemed to hint at the possibility of a love triangle with Áine and Aidrean at two of the corners, but I’m delighted to say no such thing occurred. I suspected it would. I had girded myself to read through it anyway – but the thing about relationships is that potential frequently goes unfulfilled. It’s a subversion of expectation, but one where the reader is left wondering – very much despite herself – what if? In a book where timelines shift on what if, this is a good and subtle touch.

In one way, I would define The Time Roads as a study in dualities. There are more than two time streams, more than two people playing off each other, so this isn’t an accurate description really. Yet the narrative focus is on duality: duality set against a background of endless possibility, against calculations of probability. This is in some ways a consequence of form. Within the strictures of a novella one really has to focus on the meat of the story and not get side-tracked into dead ends that, no matter how interesting, detract in a limited word count.

This duality is most noticeable in A Flight of Numbers, concerning the character of Síomón. He is contrasted with his sister Gwen, with Aidrean, and finally with his own self. It’s the most effective of the four novellas, to my mind, as it’s simultaneously the most focused and the most emotive of the bunch. It’s not perfect, however – I would have liked a significant woman character who wasn’t a murder victim or consigned, with justification, to the madhouse.

One problem with fantasy set in historical periods is “Everything changes but the status of women”. You know: there’s magic and all sorts of strange new things, but there’s also women, staying in the same traditional roles because realism. Luckily, Bernobich doesn’t do this. In her alternate history, women are educated in tertiary institutions. They instruct there, they are, in Valerija’s case at least, in government (although not in the Irish government, it seems, apart from the Queen. All her advisors are male). A woman is even the religious head of Ireland, even if she’s only in a walk-on part.

True, A Flight of Numbers isn’t particularly well represented: Maeve and Susanna and Gwen are all mathematicians of one variety or another, which is promising: there seems to be an equality of education at least, even if it hasn’t percolated up and into government. Yet in one timeline, they’re barely mentioned. In the other, they’re either murdered or sent completely mad under the weight of numbers and brother and locked away in an asylum. Yet the other three novellas have significant female characters to balance this out, however, so the “Has Decent Women Characters” box gets a big tick from me. (I hope, in particular, that if Bernobich writes more in this universe I get to see more of Gwen. I find her especially fascinating.)

All in all, an interesting read. If I had to rate it, I’d say four stars out of five. I have to say I responded to it more intellectually than emotionally, but then that’s maths for you. The only maths I ever thought was beautiful was group theory, and there’s nothing of that in here. There is, however, an unusual look at time travel in a well-realised world, with plenty of subtle touches.

Disclaimer: I got a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Reviews and reproduction…

I’ve had two new short stories published in the last couple of weeks, both themed around reproduction.

The Absence of Feathers“, a mythological eco-fantasy, has been published in the latest free-to-read issue of Luna Station Quarterly. “Feathers” features the Morrigan and her adopted grand-daughter Einin, and what happens to them when all the birds disappear from the world.

“Vita Urbis”, published in Elektrik Milk Bath Press’ recent urban fantasy anthology Twisted Boulevard, is probably my favourite story. It took me seven years to write, mostly because there were darlings I didn’t want to kill, but the poor things got slaughtered in the end. It’s about an architect who is impregnated by a city, interspersed with scenes from classical mythology, where women were always getting knocked up by bulls or swans or showers of gold, though I hope I’ve given the women involved a bit more agency than Ovid did in his Metamorphoses, which was a major inspiration for this story. There’s also shades of Oz in there, and 1984, to give a bit more density and layering.

That both stories feature myth is no accident. They’re part of a collection I’m working on, called The Mythology of Salt (that being the title of a story of mine that was published in Strange Horizons last year). Salt is based around the idea of women and myth and the consequences of knowledge. There’s two or three more stories I’m planning on finishing up soon, and then hopefully Salt will be complete enough to sell.

Speaking of selling, there’s a couple of reviews of my novella, Trading Rosemary, that have come out recently. The Book Smugglers were very kind and particularly complimentary, and Locus also had some positive things to say. It’s so nice when that happens – Trading Rosemary is my first book, and it’s such a relief to know that people like it.

If anyone’s interested, I also did a guest blog about the novella over at Catherine Lundoff’s site. It was very kind of her to ask me (thanks, Catherine!), and I was pleased to do it.

“Grimus” – Salman Rushdie

Rushdie, Salman. Grimus. London: Vintage, 1996.

grimusPublished in 1975, Salman Rushdie’s debut novel was written specifically for the Victor Gollancz Prize for Science Fiction, but Rushdie’s publishers later stepped back from marketing it for that genre, apparently considering it a mistake. Grimus tells the story of Flapping Eagle, a Native American outcast who becomes immortal after drinking some magical liquor. An inability to ‘fit in’ with a mortal world leads Flapping Eagle to attempt suicide, after which he falls through the Mediterranean Sea into another world. This world is inhabited by other potion-drinking immortals, and is presided over by the strange and powerful Grimus – a doppelganger of Flapping Eagle. The book draws heavily on mythological and religious sources, especially Sufi mysticism and mythology, but it is essentially a SF story of other selves in other dimensions, albeit a more literary story than that genre tends to go for.

Much of the critical failure of Grimus was blamed on Rushdie’s perceived inability to make a cohesive whole out of a mixture of genre and style (which might explain his publisher’s reticence about Grimus’ place within the SF genre). The fractured narrative, which moves between first and third person at lightning speed, is complex, and while fascinating does not have quite the same sure touch as Rushdie’s later works. The tone of Grimus can be uneven, and appears to suffer a little from a lack of authorial direction. For a first novel, however, Grimus is still a major accomplishment, and remains one of my favourite of Rushdie’s books (more so than the to-my-mind over-rated Satanic Verses but nowhere near the genius of Midnight’s Children) although Rushdie himself has no high opinion of it.

As with other genre types, trends in SF come and go but the underlying themes remain the same. Possibly the strongest theme in SF literature and film is conformity – specifically, the need to escape a society where conformity is a measure of acceptance and even utopia. From the celled, monastic individuals of E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops to the rigidly enforced positronic brain patterns of Asimov’s robots to the Storm-troopers of Star Wars and the Borg of Star Trek, the need to escape the confines of conformity is ubiquitous. So when Flapping Eagle shows no such inclination to escape conformity (he is much more inclined to embrace it where-ever he can find it) the ground beneath the reader begins to shake. Consciously or not, we understand what it is we’re supposed to see in SF novels, and it isn’t the protagonist desperate to fit in to a rigidly ordered group.

It is arguably this underlying instability that has resulted in calls of genre confusion within Grimus. Support for this confusion can be seen in the secondary theme of the book: migration. While this is a typical theme in SF literature (humanity travelling to distant suns, and making their home on other planets), it is also a major theme in Salman Rushdie literature. Much of the criticism available on Grimus looks at migration as an extension of Rushdie’s personality: the East Meets West collision of religious, social, and political beliefs and the alienation of the immigrant within the new cultural landscape. But I’m not sure that comparing Rushdie and Flapping Eagle in this way is accurate or helpful. Rushdie’s interviews appear to indicate an individual with a very different outlook on life to Flapping Eagle, despite superficial similarities. Rushdie has a strong predilection for non-conformity: the intellectual responsibility of individuals to move beyond the myths of their culture, to decisively not know their place and to rely on their own understanding over the myths of the past. Passivity to received dogma is not seen as a desirable or responsible intellectual characteristic.

So the fact that Rushdie could be writing an autobiography in metaphor is no indication that he actually did. However, the theme of migration between Islam and the East to the politically and religiously open West is so strong in the rest of his works that it is tempting – and even reasonable – to apply that intention in retrospect when reading Grimus. The problem here is that while Grimus may share theme with the rest of Rushdie’s work, it does not necessarily imply that all the works share genre – and different genres interpret themes differently.

An example of this is Flapping Eagle’s continuing social isolation. This alienation is itself a symptom of Flapping Eagle’s conformity to Grimus’ plans for him – Grimus has engineered much of Flapping Eagle’s life in order to control his destiny.

Do you deny that by selecting you as a Recipient I shaped your life thenceforth? Do you deny that by taking your sister from the Axona I forced your expulsion? Do you deny that by expelling Nicholas Deggle into your continuum I guided you towards Calf Island? Do you deny that allowing you to wander the world for centuries instead of bringing you here I made you the man that you are, chameleon, adaptable, confused? Do you deny that by choosing a man similar in appearance to myself I estimated exactly the effect of such a man on Virgil and on the town K? Do you deny that I lured you here with the Spectre of Bird-Dog? Do you deny that I have steered a course between the infinite potential presents and futures in order to make this meeting possible? (And then, dropping his voice:) Which of your Lord’s blessings would you deny? (Rushdie 233)

Thus, Flapping Eagle’s conformity is hidden under a surface of non-conformity as he travels the course that Grimus has set for him, the course of a continually alienated outsider who is always trying to fit in to whatever society he happens to be in at the time. This is a major inversion of the usual SF treatment of this theme – a twist that might not be so unsettling in a non-SF genre.

It seems to me to be plausible that Rushdie, the non-conformist, has unsuccessfully tried to produce his own antithesis in Flapping Eagle, and fails for want of empathy. Flapping Eagle, it must be admitted, is a curiously flat character dumped into a community of the fascinatingly warped and grotesque. The fat, pedantic, and stubbornly reclusive Virgil is an infinitely more attractive and seductive character. That the guide so outshines the guided is an odd narrative choice, but is it deliberate? Or did Rushdie’s sympathy for Virgil, the active individualist, drag the author off the genre track? Is this why Grimus’ seems so muddled at times?

It’s certainly understandable that Rushdie’s sympathy for the more interesting, and more non-conformist – character led him to make the hero’s SF journey from conformity to non-conformity so unbalanced.

It is inescapably true that Flapping Eagle is mostly led around by the nose, and it’s hard to have much liking for him. Left to shift for himself, he tends to wallow and drift and take the path of least resistance until forced to do otherwise. In conformity-themed SF, this is where the protagonist normally starts his journey before he or she learns how to escape the stifling nature of their community-based conformity. In essence, this type of SF novel shows the journey of a person learning the value of non-conformity. But Flapping Eagle never achieves the growth suggested by his quest or its underlying theme. Towards the end of Grimus, when he confronts his doppelganger at Grimushome, he appears to show a smidgeon of initiative. Success!But it turns out, however, that his entire journey has been orchestrated by Grimus – Flapping Eagle has had no choices in the matter, and even his victory over Grimus is at the latter’s behest. When, only one page from the end of the novel, Flapping Eagle finally does something Grimus does not want, it is almost too unexpected to the reader as well. It is unexpected because the change is too sudden for the character. There has been little gradual awakening to his own deliberate intellectual and moral non-conformity; it simply comes regardless. The one individual in the novel who has the intellectual and moral understanding of his own relationship with conformity and lack thereof is Virgil – but Grimus merely tells the end of Virgil’s story, not the whole of it.

I’d rather have read a history of Virgil, with Flapping Eagle on the periphery – perhaps coming in at the end, where Virgil could help him perform his function of getting rid of the Stone Rose. It is Virgil who should have been the centre of a SF novel, not Flapping Eagle. It is Virgil who would have had the more convincing hero’s journey. It is Virgil who engages Rushdie’s sympathies so much that the author, probably unconsciously, pushes to one side the thematic development of Flapping Eagle in favour of the character who most suits the SF genre.

Flapping Eagle spends most of his time wishing unashamedly for conformity, and I end up wanting him to go away as much as any of the communities that exclude him. As a protagonist in a novel themed around a more realistic experience of social migration and integration, as many of Rushdie’s protagonists are, he would likely be a more successful character. However, as a SF lead his level of conformity, and his too-quick solution of it, makes him a failure – and the success of Grimus hangs on the journey of Flapping Eagle. That journey has all the hallmarks and obstacles of the SF journey towards non-conformity. Yet in its solution to the problem of conformity, and in its protagonist, Grimus does not conform to the expectations of readers well-versed in SF perceptions. That is what makes the novel so muddled within genre, and is arguably the root cause of its critical failure. Even those who are not dedicated SF readers cannot help but come to the conclusion that there is something “off” about its treatment of conformity.

There’s some irony in that.

“The Chrysalids” – John Wyndham

John Wyndham, The Chrysalids. London: Penguin Books.

First published 1955.

chrysalidsJohn Wyndham’s The Chrysalids was one of the seminal books of my childhood. I first read it at about 10, and to this day I still read it every couple of months. There are passages I could probably recite from memory. What fascinated me about this book was partly the setting, and how comfortably it settled with New Zealand’s iconic anti-nuclear policy – in The Chrysalids, the mutated survivors of nuclear war headed towards New Zealand as a relatively pristine haven from the resulting environmental and social catastrophe.

It also introduced me to the idea of mutation – both biological and cultural. I didn’t recognise it in so many words when I first read the book (at ten years old, genetic mutation and social upheaval as such were still far in my mental future) but the idea that one sudden event could prompt an explosion within the human body, and the beginnings of a new type of human being… that was fascinating. What was even more fascinating was the way that this new type of human was treated – hunted down by the genetically pure, sterilised, and thrust out into the wilderness. The really creepy thing was that people would suddenly turn on their neighbours. We see this in the real world all the time – the Rwandan genocide is a particularly brutal example of a flash-point being reached, where neighbours are suddenly dehumanised due to social and cultural expectations of “us” and “other”.

If anything, The Chrysalids represented possibility, and that possibility continues to define the book for me: the idea of sudden and drastic genetic change – how it may have occurred in the past, how we have the capability to bring it about today, why we retain that ability, knowing what it can do… and how we would cope with any possible results.

Being raised in a non-religious family, The Chrysalids was my first real experience of the depths to which religion could be twisted to justify the inexplicable in order to make it understandable. How many could stand up against the need to find meaning after nuclear catastrophe, when scientific knowledge is lost and religion appears to provide a means of protection and escape – if only one can conform enough? This fear of difference and nonconformity – biological and intellectual – and the wholesale rooting out of these perceived spiritual imperfections is chilling. The child David’s dream about his father sacrificing his six-toed friend, Sophie, as he sacrificed a mutant calf is chilling, not just for the cruelty but for the indifference.

We all stood looking at her, and waiting. Presently she started to run from one person to another, imploring them to help her, but none of them moved, and none of their faces had any expression. My father started to walk towards her, the knife shining in his hand. Sophie grew frantic; she flitted from one unmoving person to another, tears running down her face …. He raised his other hand high, and as he swept it down the knife flashed in the light of the rising sun, just as it had flashed when he cut the calf’s throat… (28)

As horrible as this childish dream is, however, if pales to the later realisation of Sophie’s life as an adult – mutilated, sterilised, and thrust out into the radioactive Fringes as a child, as an adult still living there as the lover of a mutated spider-man who would throw her over in an instant for a woman who could give him children. (It appears that only the women were sterilised – male Blasphemies escaped that fate in one of Wyndham’s rare slips.) In her instinctive emotional understanding and her knowledge of her own limitations Sophie despairs: wisdom banished to the wilderness.

Wyndham is careful enough to emphasise the horror of this war-induced dystopia in two different ways. He refuses to make the dystopian community of Waknuk and its surrounds a homogenous set of people. David is exposed to the worst of it, as his father Joseph is a true and unrelenting bigot who is happy to crush his own family in the name of faith. Indirectly, this exposure also allows David to find the humanity in others – in his Aunt Harriet (who drowns her mutated infant and herself to escape having to give up her baby) he sees the possibility of an adult figure prioritising love over religion and its mandated conformity. As he ages, he sees more individuals who think this way, but they are always individuals – there is never the possibility of a community of the dispossessed. Purity of species overrides purity of heart, but even those entrusted with preserving the former can be decent enough to preserve some of the latter. The Inspector who condemns Sophie comforts David more than his father does.

The growing claustrophobia felt by David and his telepathic friends is real and immediate. Despite their abilities, they are powerless in a world of rigid power structures, where governments and individuals take pride in the power of being a true Norm. This takes its toll on them, who would share in that power without truly meriting it by the standards of their own community. They are betrayed by one of their own (and Anne is to be pitied as much as Sophie and Harriet), tortured, killed, and their leader left behind in anonymity as they escape to Zealand, where the new species is growing. As the most ordinary of the Chrysalids, David is the pivotal figure. He is neither as powerful as his little sister Petra, as practical and competent as his lover Rosalind, or as intelligent as Michael. All David has comes from his genetic makeup – his psychic abilities, his growing realisation of difference, and his legacy from his father. David is everyman as he wishes he could be. He is us.

It is that identification, that ordinariness, which provides the subtlest and most horrifying part of the book. For when the escaping Chrysalids are rescued by the Zealand airship, the pursuing Norms are killed – and the Zealander shows no remorse. Her evolutionary rationale for the destruction of inferior species is shocking – especially as the reader is left with no alternative but to accept that the Norms are inferior, and that in the coming struggle – far into the future, to be sure – they should lose, whether they are neighbours or not. In effect, the Zealanders are really no different to the Norms – they aim to preserve their species above all else. Both sides have privileged power above ethics – with some justification. But is some enough? David, who is like us ordinary in his extraordinariness, may dislike the reasoning of his new friend and may think fondly of some of his former family, but he is on his way to a new family, a new community, and his place in it promises to be as secure as his father’s is within the old. In effect, he has escaped his father only to take his place.

Genetics will out, one way or another.

“Genesis” – Bernard Beckett

Bernard Beckett, Genesis, Dunedin: Longacre Press, 2006.

genesisTaking its cue from Plato’s Republic, and with more than a hint of George Orwell, Genesis outlines a world where society is split by genetic identity. In a future resulting from climate change, terrorism, the rise of religious fundamentalism and the onset of World War Three, New Zealand has cut itself off from the rest of the world. In the resulting closed society, a leader called Plato sets out the rules for the new community, rules that will prevent the chaos of the outside world from destroying NZ as it has destroyed the outside world – at least, that is what the reader is led to think. It’s never made quite plain as to the state of life outside NZ – initially, refugees try to enter NZ waters and are blown up by the army. (Anyone familiar with the state of the NZ military today knows that we are now solidly in the realm of science fiction.) After a while, there are less and less attempts. Does this mean that the need grows less, or that the refugees do? This is never made clear, and is a clever way of increasing the claustrophobic tone of the book.

In the early days of the Republic, gene testing divides the population into four groups: labourers, soldiers, technicians, and philosophers. As can be expected, however, the odd individual arises who doesn’t fit into their assigned class as well as he or she might. One of the main characters, Adam Forde, is such an individual. Adam’s life is presented by a young student philosopher called Anaximander, who is preparing for entrance into the Academy: the highest echelon of academia, and the group with the responsibility of running the Republic – a Republic that has drastically changed since Adam’s day.

(And can I just say how extremely refreshing it is to find a recent SF novel that doesn’t cater so wholly to the five second attention span of the MTV generation? (Yes, get off my lawn, you whippersnappers!) By far the very great majority of this book takes place in two or three rooms, where two or several people simply talk to each other. It’s not trying to be Epic Science Fiction (and oh, how I’ve come to loathe that phrase. In fact, if I had every SF publishing house by the balls, I would ban, for a period of at least ten years, the publication of any SF book that could possibly be described as “epic”). It’s trying to be good science fiction. There’s a difference, and I’m lately coming to the conclusion that the two must be nearly mutually exclusive. My favourite SF literature has always resulted from the introduction of a specific technology or event into a society, and the resulting effect on people who are from the future but are in reality Just Like Us. It’s speculative fiction at its finest, uncluttered by the equivalent of summer blockbuster car chases and explosive set pieces. These are fine in their own way (when used sparingly and not as an alternative to actual plot) but are not a substitute for characterisation or actual story-telling.)

Genesis is structured around Anaximander’s oral presentation to her three examiners. The story of Adam’s life has reached legendary status in the centuries since his death, but Anaximander has a new interpretation of it, and him. Originally an extremely capable philosopher himself, Adam was demoted from the philosopher to the soldier class as a result of his inability to conform as expected to social and intellectual norms. It is not long before Adam disgraces himself in his new position as well, murdering fellow soldiers in order to avoid shooting a refugee girl.

Adam escapes the death penalty by being assigned to an experiment in identity: the philosopher William has created a new android, Art. Given that William’s previous efforts had ripped nearby children to shreds, it is decided that Art needs a more disposable test subject to interact with. In fact, by forced interaction with Art Adam is helping to programme the android, and to build its identity into a functioning individual. The science fiction staple of androids as living creatures is used effectively here, especially as Art avoids the by now too-common milquetoast innocence commonly given to androids in his situation. Art, in fact, is a nuisance brat with an annoyingly steep learning curve, and naturally this doesn’t help Adam, who is locked into his own mindset of seeing Art as a subhuman piece of machinery. Beckett manages the two perspectives (and their inherent chauvinisms, for Art is as pro-android as Adam is pro-human) well, although his sympathy initially seems to be with the android, who does tend to get the best lines:

‘Ugly’s still ugly, no matter how you see it.’

‘An interesting assertion. Justify it.’

‘You bring twenty people in here,’ Adam told him, ‘and they’ll all say the same thing. They’ll all say you’re ugly.’

‘Bring in twenty of me,’ Art spat back, ‘and we’d all say your arse is prettier than your face.’

‘There aren’t twenty of you.’

‘No, you’re right. I’m unique. So I can safely say that all androids find you ugly. Not all humans find me ugly. So technically, I’m better looking than you, using objective criteria.’

(Art isn’t your normal android. For one, he looks like an orang-utan. Why a roboticist should make an android in the shape of an orang-utan I’ve no earthly idea, unless it is to somehow reinforce its inferiority from a human-chauvinist point of view.)

But while Adam is fulfilling his role of extending Art’s programming, his input extends far beyond what anyone expects – especially Art. The secret of what happened in the final moments between the two, in their attempts to escape the testing facility, has, Anaximander believes, been lost. And when she finds that the Academy have not only still got the missing archive footage, but are actively keeping it from the public and philosophers both in a ruthless indoctrination programme of their own, her growing proximity to the secret, and how she eventually reacts to it, endangers far more than her standing in the academic community.

Examiner: You have become less careful in your answers.

Anaximander: I have.

Examiner: Are you sure that is wise?

Anaximander: I am sure it isn’t.

The realisation of the extent of the conspiracy within the Academy – a conspiracy that even involves Anaximander’s tutor Pericles, who has prepared her for the Academy examination for years – is pretty shocking. It was the twist I didn’t see coming (there’s another that most readers should get), and both involve identity: how it is formed, how it is kept… and how it is undermined. While it is true that the Republic of Anaximander’s day has reached almost utopian status, with the class divisions and civil unrest of Adam’s day long in the past, the price of maintaining that status has required the Academy to institute distinctly unsavoury measures. What price peace against the life and intellectual freedom of the individual? The totalitarian nature of the Republic has been based from the beginning on control over outside influences; firstly those from outside the borders of the country; and eventually those from within the minds of its citizens, influences in the form of ideas that spread throughout the population like a virus. Unsurprisingly, it is this viral, replicating influence that has the greatest effect. It’s also what dooms the main characters of Genesis – particularly Adam, Art, and Anaximander, but also the Academy in general – a fate that is arguably irrespective of who lives and dies.