Iphigenia in Splott – Gary Owen

Iphigenia In Splott at The Sherman Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet C31B3149It’s tempting to discuss Iphigenia in Splott, – Gary Owen’s new one-woman play about austerity – purely in terms of its proximity to the General Election. Of course the timing of the production is knowingly apposite, and the play has surely become even more powerful in light of last week’s results. In this regard Iphigenia continues the Sherman Theatre’s commitment to staging socially relevant and confrontational contemporary drama. And while this is more than just an “issues” play, it nonetheless cuts deep in its examination of austerity, centering on those who bear the brunt of punitive social reforms made in the name of economic recovery. Its greatest achievement is the way it speaks about big-picture, country-wide issues via a microscopic focus on an individual life. This is raw, provocative and deeply moving stuff.

The play is set in Splott (an inner-city district of Cardiff), and concerns Effie: a young, unemployed, angry girl whose life “spirals through a mess of drink, drugs and drama”. Essentially Iphigenia in Splott is a 75-minute monologue, during which Effie – always addressing the audience directly – describes and re-enacts her life; from street arguments and sex, through to drug taking and a strikingly visceral scene in a hospital.

Iphigenia hits the ground running with its appropriation of the themes of its ancient Greek namesake. Effie considers herself to have been sacrificed under the aegis of austerity, much like Agamemnon’s daughter was killed in the pursuit of a supposed greater good. Whether or not this sacrifice is truly willing is one the play’s key ambiguities.

Tonight

You all are here to give thanks

To me.

Yeah I know it’s a shock

But you lot, every single one

You’re in my debt.

And tonight – boys and girls, ladies and gents –

I’ve come to collect.

This immediately creates a kind of social tension between Effie and the play’s audience; the majority, if not all, of whom, I imagine, have never suffered in any meaningfully negative way at the hands of austerity. It’s possible to interpret this tension as a wry dig at the theatre world’s much-publicised struggle to attract demographically diverse audiences. I mean, I wouldn’t tug at this thread too much, but it’s there if you really must.

But all this austerity stuff is very subtly deployed; it’s in the subtext, it forms the background; only rising to the surface in, for example, the occasional mention of a closed-down swimming pool, or references to formerly busy streets of shops, now empty and abandoned. The cuts may be the cause of much of the difficulty in Effie’s life, but don’t expect long political diatribes or invective about government policy. This is a play that makes its point about austerity through an intimate portrayal of the day-to-day life of a woman in poverty, rather than through grand statements and ideology.

The play’s staging is likewise apocalyptically minimalist: the most prominent feature is a column of fluorescent tube lights; perfectly arranged and properly ordered at the top, but collapsing and subsiding at the bottom in a brilliant visual metaphor for the social structures being critiqued by the drama.

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Despite what I’ve written above, however, Iphigenia in Splott isn’t unrelentingly bleak. There’s an undercurrent of wit and dark humour which creates some wonderful tonal variations without undermining the seriousness of the play’s subject. Gary Owen’s script is sharp and deftly controlled; modern in its use of slang and colloquialisms, but traditional in its concern for rhyme and prosodic rhythm. Every character that Effie describes to us is distinct and idiosyncratic, without ever devolving into stereotype or caricature, a feat achieved in part by this convergence of heart-rending drama with pointed humour.

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The bulk of my praise, however, must go to Sophie Melville’s utterly mindblowing performance as Effie. As the only actor onstage for the entire, interval-less 75 minutes, Melville commands your attention for every single second. She fills the space with constant movement, and runs such a gamut of wide-ranging and complex emotions as to make summing-up her performance an incredibly difficult task. Speaking in a thick, working class Cardiff accent, one moment Effie might be a flirtatious drunk or a cocky street kid, a maelstrom of anger or passion, but the next she might be fragile and innocent, revealing a youthful vulnerability behind the swaggering outer facade. Melville’s delivery is similarly diverse, from a frenetic, slang-heavy and rap-like cascade, to a delicate and frail introspection delivered so slowly and quietly that the audience leaned forward on the edge of their seats, waiting for the next revelation.

The transitions between these moments are always fluid and organic; this is a complex character piece. We may hate Effie when she first struts onstage, abrasive and accusing, but when she confides in us her heart-breaking desire to feel “not alone”, surrounded by nothing but three empty chairs and some flickering tube lights, our opinions of her are very different. It’s a performance that never lets up its emotional intensity and humanity. People were crying. I’ll never forget it.

Iphigenia in Splott is a shocking, powerful, and moving play; a masterpiece of post-recession theatre; state-of-the-nation told via the state of an individual. In a recent Daily Mail article, Tom Conti commented that socialism and anti-austerity comes from a place of hatred and jealousy, but he’s wrong; they come from a place of anger, and this is an angry, charged and sad play. While Iphigenia in Splott isn’t quite a direct call for revolution, it’s certainly a warning, “What is gonna happen when we can’t take it anymore?”. I hope it at least serves as an eye-opener to those disinterested in the real-world consequences of austerity. If you live anywhere near Cardiff: go and see it. If you’re going to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival: go and see it. Hell, if you live in San Francisco, get on a plane, come to Cardiff, and go and see it!

(All images © Mark Douet)

Memory of Water – Emmi Itäranta

MemofWatI think it’s fair to say that the Arthur C. Clarke Award has a theme this year. This is the third book I’ve read from the shortlist, and it’s yet another lit-fic – genre crossover with a post-apocalyptic setting.

And I really didn’t like it.

It’s probably best to start with the premise, because everything that’s wrong with the book more or less stems from the flaws therein. Several hundred years into the future, global warming (or some such similar climate catastrophe) has melted the ice caps; oceans have risen, entire continents have been lost, and almost all sources of fresh water have dried up. The teenage narrator, Noira, lives in the “Scandinavian Union”, a state ruled by the totalitarian “military”, which controls all of the water, and rations it out to the citizenry in such a way as just-about keeps people alive.

The primary narrative concerns Noira and her immediate family as they attempt to keep a freshwater spring near their home hidden from the military. Hiding or not-disclosing a source of water is a “water crime”, punishable by death.

So far so good; climate change is, of course, a very worth topic for SF to cover. The first problem, though, is that Memory of Water’s larger-scale worldbuilding isn’t consistent with its basic premise. Fresh water is supposedly ultra-scarce (so much so that sacks of it have become currency, valued like gold), yet the text is peppered with casual descriptions of the characters taking showers, washing their clothes, and watering their gardens, which completely undermines any efforts the writer makes to generate tension and hammer home her themes of desperation and water poverty. Noira’s father’s assertion that living without their hidden spring would mean “the garden would suffer somewhat” is hardly evocative of a fraught struggle to cling to life.

There are also numerous references to a nearby sea; in fact, the world is almost entirely covered with water – but there is no mention whatsoever of desalination technology. This would be fine if the post-apocalyptic society of the Union was technologically atavistic, but it isn’t: there are trains, fingerprint scanners, solar panels and a network of communication devices called “pods”. All of this stuff has survived the climate catastrophe, but the basic knowledge needed to remove salt from water has, apparently, been lost. (Also: with such an abundance of modern technology, why are the characters so amazed when they stumble upon some old CDs, or a broken radio, or any of the other salvage that seems strewn all over the place?)

The second problem has to do with the book’s moral direction. Memory of Water is sympathetic with the plight of Noira and her family. She’s a likable, honest, and loving narrator, and at no point is this presentation ambiguous or ironic. Noira is the heroine. But it seems to me that keeping a source of fresh water hidden from the dying-of-thirst society that surrounds you (and hogging all the water for yourself) is an extremely dickish thing to do. Exactly why Noira and her family want to hide the spring at the back of their house isn’t clear. There’s some vague stuff about water being “free”, and the military wanting to “own” it, but this isn’t at all satisfying or substantial. The real reason, it seems, is that the narrative just needs a conflict to move things forward.

Other sub-plots are picked up and abandoned haphazardly.  Noira and her best friend spend a good chunk of the novel attempting to uncover the fate of a lost scientific expedition, which is by far the most interesting part of the book, and by far the most frustrating when no answers are forthcoming. Likewise, what her mother is researching when she leaves to work in a faraway university is never explored, and the deeper politics and power structures behind the ubiquitous “military” are anybody’s guess.

Thematic and emotional interests are similarly underdeveloped. For the first half of the novel, Noira will often try to imagine what winter is like (a season that’s vanished in the climate-changed future), which creates some wonderful visual contrasts between the arid world of the books’ setting, and the crystalline snowscape of Noira’s dreams. There’s a suggestion that Noira’s winter-obsession will eventually have implications for the book’s plot, or at least some metaphorical significance, but about half-way through the text, all the winter stuff is abandoned, never to be mentioned again.

***

Stylistically Memory of Water is a real grab bag. Emmi Itäranta is clearly a sensitive writer; the prose is very stylised and highly emotional, but it also overreaches itself philosophically. Almost every page contains some kind of aphoristic or quasi-spiritual statement about water, most of which are nowhere near as deep or as poetic as the writer seems to think. The basic notion that, in a water-scarce world, a whole philosophy of water has arisen with its own set of metaphors, idioms and symbolism is commendable. Unfortunately, Memory of Water lacks the intellectual nous to make this really work. A lot of the water-philosophy is twee, and a lot of it is just baffling nonsense. Some examples:

Water has no beginning and no end (p31)

We are children of water, and water is death’s close companion. The two cannot be separated from us, for we are made of the versatility of water and the closeness of death. (p 113)

Water is the most versatile of all elements […] it doesn’t hesitate to shatter against sharp rocks in rainfall […] it exists beyond all beginnings and ends. (p221)

I was like a calm surface of water, extreme and unnatural (p62)

The overarching idea that, in this world, water has a memory – specifically a memory of everything human society has done to it – is strong, both poetically and metaphorically. Unfortunately, though, this concept is just lost amid the never-ending salvo of confusing, cod-philosophical gibberish that dominates the narrative.

There’s also the regrettable fact that the vast majority of this stuff that enters the dialogue makes every character sound as if they’re suffering from a bladder disorder, “I can feel water wanting to leave me”, “my water may run dry freely” etc.

Elsewhere, the sentence-by-sentence styling just feels sort of, off. Sometimes, as above, there’s an eloquence issue, and sometimes the characters themselves just sound weirdly artificial, an attempt at over-styling that hasn’t paid off:

Silence is not needed to chain tame things (p. 134)

You’ll be a better tea master than I know how to be anymore. (p86)

A circle only knows its own shape (p. 219).

Memory of Water is a perfect example of a book that’s brilliant in abstraction, but let down in its execution. There’s so much I wanted to like about it. The styling is way off, but at least it’s an *attempt* at an idiosyncratic style; something that’s too rare in modern Science Fiction. Likewise the ending would be very striking if I’d been made to care about the characters or anything that happens to them. There are little nuggets of success; the counter-intuitive idea that water, so abundant, has nonetheless become more valuable than gold is a wonderful inversion of the way the world is. And the basic concept of a post-apocalyptic story that’s very small, personal and intimate, rather than the Big, Important, Violent stuff that dominates the genre is also refreshing. I’m intrigued to see where Emmi Itäranta goes next, but as it stands, Memory of Water is just… forgettable.

The Girl With All The Gifts – M. R. Carey

TGWATG

The major problem for The Girl with All the Gifts (2014) is that the video game The Last of Us (2013) had the same idea, but did it much, much better.

Here’s the premise for TGWATG:

A strain of mutated cordyceps fungus infects humans. Those infected become zombie-like, and transmit the infection to others through bites. As the infection progresses, fungal growths protrude from the victims until, after many years, their bodies are completely over-taken and they become immobile clumps of gross mushroom stuff. The initial outbreak spreads very quickly, society collapses, small pockets of survivors yadda yadda yadda.

Twenty years later, a young girl is discovered to be infected-but-kinda-immune. A group of adults must escort her across the UK on a long, treacherous journey to a lab where a scientist wants to remove her brain in the hopes of synthesising a cure.

And here is the premise for The Last of Us:

A strain of mutated cordyceps fungus infects humans. Those infected become zombie-like, and transmit the infection to others through bites. As the infection progresses, fungal growths protrude from the victims until, after many years, their bodies are completely over-taken and they become immobile clumps of gross mushroom stuff. The initial outbreak spreads very quickly, society collapses, small pockets of survivors yadda yadda yadda.

 Twenty years later, a young girl is discovered to be bitten-but -immune. A gruff dude must escort her across America on a long, treacherous journey to a lab where some scientists want to remove her brain in the hopes of synthesising a cure.

 (Both my words)

The novel and the game were released too closely for any accusations of plagiarism to be seriously considered. Indeed, The Girl with All the Gifts even mentions the same David Attenborough “cordyceps” documentary that The Last of Us writer Neil Druckmann cites as being the inspiration behind his own story.

 TLOU

The fact that two writers had the same idea at the same time is boring. What is interesting, however, is the stylistic and qualitative difference between these two similar narratives. The Girl with All the Gifts is good, but compared with TLOU its characters are flat stereotypes (with the exception of the girl Melanie), its dialogue is stilted and exposition-heavy, its plotting is bloated with unnecessary events, and its subtextual examination of the parent-child relationship is disappointingly shallow.

I’m not going to write a long, list-like, compare-and-contrast review, (this is meant to be part of a review series on the 2015 Clarke Award, for a start), so I won’t say much more about TLOU. But the similarities are such that I felt I should mention it. The difficulty for The Girl with all the Gifts is that, to anyone who’s played The Last of Us (and the crossover of people who read Science Fiction, and people who game is a big one), it can’t be anything but second best. A lesser version of deeply-loved original.

(As an aside, I’d like to add how surprised I am that so many fellow SF critics (famous ones, good ones, too), have described this book’s fungus-zombie concept as amazingly original, with no mention whatsoever of The Last of Us and its place as a highly-praised, complex and important part of the genre zeitgeist. If anything, this reinforces my idea that genre critics who refuse to engage with video games are increasingly finding themselves with ever-widening gaps in their knowledge of the field. They might even be at risk of finding themselves left behind entirely. And here I was hoping that “video games are art” was becoming a truism.)

 ***

Taken on its own terms, The Girl with All the Gifts is perfectly fine; an action-heavy piece of commercial genre work which dabbles in some mild social and philosophical issues. The titular protagonist, Melanie, is a marvel; a super-intelligent child whose perspectives on adulthood, responsibility and love are very well done indeed. She has a voice truly her own. Melanie’s struggle between desperately wanting to stay close to those she loves, and at the same time wanting to distance herself from them (lest she infect them with the fungus-virus) result in some striking moments; the interplay of physical and emotional closeness is very good.

The other characters, however, are nowhere near as well-developed. The Girl with All the Gifts does this weird sort of flip-reverse thing, where for most of its story the major players seem to be shallow stereotypes (the brusque sergeant, the scientist who thinks of people as “specimens”, the cowardly army grunt etc.), but who by the end are revealed to have more emotional depth than you’ve been led to believe. I’m not quite sure what the point of this actually is, other than to, perhaps, generate some tensions by playing with the reader’s expectations. I’d much prefer the characters to be fully-rounded from the off.

The writing is mostly good, and especially note-worthy are the action sequences, which are fluid, well-paced and never confusing. It’s possible to race through its 460 pages very quickly. It’s ultra readable. But I wasn’t too taken by the use of the word “Hungry” for “zombie”, which I found irritatingly juvenile (this is yet another zombie story set in a universe which never seems to have had its own zombie fiction). And there are occasional discrepancies in the worldbuilding; for example, at one point we are told that:

The hungries mostly stay close to where they were first turned, or infected, or whatever you want to call it. It’s not a homing instinct

But just eleven pages later, the text decides:

Instead of just freezing in place […] some hungries have a homing instinct for a particular place.

So it’s a hit-and-miss sort of book. The ending is absolutely brilliant: shocking, complex, morally ambiguous and by far the strongest, most original part of the book. But elsewhere, too much is familiar. There are gangs of scavenging, violent survivors roaming the wastes because genre convention dictates that all post-apocalypses must be so populated. And the fact that sneaking past the zombies depends on not being smelled by them is something we’ve all seen over and over again.

Outside of its one strong character and its good ending, The Girl with All the Gifts is just a fun romp, nothing more.

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenWhere Station Eleven is most successful is in its emotional intricacies; it “gets” people in a way that Science Fiction sadly rarely does. It cuts deep in its examinations of how relationships can change over a lifetime, softening and hardening, swinging from one extreme of feeling to another and back again. It’s moving, elegantly written if not particularly stylised, and deftly handles the inconsistent and complex nature of human emotions. I was also struck by the way it uses its post-apocalyptic setting to question and challenge where our own (pre-apocalyptic?) society finds value.

Where Station Eleven is least successful, however, is in its surface elements and the way it performs its genre. The novel falls short in its descriptions and its worldbuilding, failing to evoke that sense of wonder-at-emptiness that’s characteristic of the best post-apocalyptic fiction. The second half of the novel hinges on some clichéd and predictable drivel about a self-styled “Prophet” of the wastes: a man obsessed with the Book of Revelations who interprets the end of society as a Biblical cleansing of the sinful, akin to Noah’s flood or whatever. There’s a lot to recommend about Station Eleven, and I enjoyed it immensely, it’s just a shame that the strength of its subtexts and characterisation isn’t reflected in its setting or plot.

The principal narrative follows the ‘Travelling Symphony’, an itinerant theatre troupe that specialises in performances of Shakespeare, and which travels from settlement to settlement in the decades following the “Georgian Flu”, a bird-flu-esque pandemic that’s killed 99.9% of the world’s population. The book has a non-linear narrative and tracks multiple characters through both pre- and post-apocalyptic North America. In fact, Station Eleven is a structural marvel, simultaneously juggling several timelines and character arcs but never becoming confusing or pretentious. The reasons for this back-and-forth between past and present are, supposedly, many fold: from the standard post-apoc fare of hammering home what’s been lost, to the stylistic function of building tension. There’s also a lot of satisfying and impressive imagery to be found in the dissonance that comes from the manic, workaday, pre-apocalyptic world rubbing against the empty, slow, quiet and timeless post-crisis America. This dissonance is expressed most keenly in the novel’s preoccupation with aeronautical imagery: the presence-then-absence of planes from the sky.  Alastair Reynolds has written about this more eloquently than I ever could, so I direct you to his own review.

The nominal main character is Katniss…er… I mean Kirsten, a knife-wielding actress of the ‘Travelling Symphony’ who was just a child when society collapsed. She’s also the least interesting character, whose arc involves being separated from the Symphony and trying to find it again, while occasionally stopping to wonder what the world was like “before”, which is a fairly run-of-the-mill genre trapping, and pretty dull.

Most fascinating are Arthur and his ex-wife Miranda, whose heart-rending story occurs before the onset of the world-ending super plague. What shines through is the complexity of their relationship, not just the youthful affair and eventual separation, but the fact that, years after their divorce, they’re unable to extricate themselves from one another’s lives. Their struggle for happiness – with and without each other – is made all the more poignant by the novel’s dramatic irony and sense of impending doom: if only they knew, as the reader does, how little time they have left.

It’s frustrating, however, that the novel doesn’t capitalize on its interest in Shakespeare. In recent years the post-apocalyptic novel has developed a concern for what I call ‘textual salvage’, whereby the trendy salvagepunk aspects of the genre (scrap fetish and bric-a-brac technology etc) are replaced with salvage of a different kind: that of literary history and intertextuality. Station Eleven does this in a very basic way (its characters want to preserve Shakespeare), but for me this doesn’t go far enough. The best examples of what I’m talking about use textual salvage to completely reconfigure society, affecting their texts both on the level of world building *and* on the level of subtext (by engaging with the post-modern problem that everything has been done already, and all we’re left with now is endless reproduction and reconfiguration). My interest was piqued when I read the book’s blurb: the apocalypse combined with Shakespeare, but I’ve just seen this sort of thing done much, much better elsewhere; notably China Miéville’s Railsea in which the post-apoc society is reordered as a collective performance of Moby Dick, and in Marly Youman’s Thaliad, which tells it’s tale through the filter of salvaged Classical poetry, thus making-strange both the post-apocalyptic world of the novel and our own pre-crisis society.

Station Eleven, then, is at its best when it’s not being a Science Fiction novel. The pre-plague chapters outshine the others by orders of magnitude. They’re so good, so intricate and delicate and downright human as to make the whole experience worthwhile anyway. I mean, the apocalypse stuff isn’t a complete waste (c.f. the aforementioned aeroplane imagery and wonderful use of dramatic irony), but it’s not original in any way. As a nominee for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke award, it’s troubling that the Science Fictional elements are this novel’s weakest aspects, but nevertheless, this remains a beautiful, well-observed, well-written novel about what it is to be human. If, however, you’re looking for a great after-the-plague Science Fiction novel, read Earth Abides instead.

Leviathan – Matthew Trevannion

The first question I had about Matthew Trevannion’s brilliant new play Leviathan was one of paratext, namely: why does a drama so seemingly parochial in its subject matter have such an epic, myth-invoking title?

The invocation, it turns out, is figurative, as beneath the familiar waters of this family drama lurks a metaphorical monster: the ‘Leviathan’ of the title simultaneously representing depression, secrecy and failed escape.

The one-act play is set entirely in the back garden of a Welsh council house, in which three women from the same family (grandmother, mother, daughter) argue, bicker, laugh and wrestle with their pasts, presents and, by proxy, their futures. I say “three women”, but in fact it’s only two, as the mother, Karen (Claire Cage), has suffered some kind of mental breakdown, and become a catatonic mute. Above the house runs a train line, and it’s tempting to interpret the occasional tape-loops of trains travelling back and forth as an economic allegory: the world passing by as the lives of the council house tenants remain static.

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As grandmother and granddaughter argue and parley, various truths and conflicts rise to the surface. They both have different ideas about how best to treat Karen (who spends the play slouched in a sofa-chair that’s been dragged into the sun), grandmother Mavis is disapproving of granddaughter Hannah’s lifestyle (especially her much older boyfriend), and behind her no-nonsense, blunt facade is an obvious disappointment that she hasn’t become quite the matriarch that she’d perhaps once imagined.

Hannah (Gwawr Loader) herself is more fragile; the most complex but almost the most subtle of the three performances. Hannah variously reveals pregnancy and cancers, which may-or-may-not be fantasies devised to shock her mother from her catatonia, or even to inject some manner of drama, imagined or otherwise, into her own life. The ambiguity is key.

What I’ve just described might sound unrelentingly bleak, but in terms of its genre, Leviathan predominantly functions as a black comedy. There aren’t jokes, per se, rather, the humour manifests as a kind of character comedy, mostly emerging from Siw Hughes’ show-stealing performance as the outrageously un-PC Mavis. The language chiefly adheres to a kind of colloquial naturalism: everything is rendered in strong South Wales accents, with local idioms and slang adding flavour to the wonderfully frenetic tumble of the dialogue.

***

Everything I’ve said above, though, is only one half of a more complex whole. Juxtaposed against the colloquial, micro-cosmic portrayal of familial pain is a much stranger use of language and imagery; and it’s out of this contrast between the everyday and the weird that the play’s most fascinating tensions are created. The catatonic mother Karen, for example, will often address the audience in a sort of outlandish hybrid of soliloquy and monologue. At such junctures the play’s language becomes increasingly more perfomative and abstract. Supplementing this are multiple gothic images, from a modern-gothic, almost apocalyptic description of sex “in a derelict house”, to the more traditional gothic staple of a grave-digging scene.

Leviathan’s greatest challenge, then, is in trying to parse the deeper meaning behind the contrasting images, lexicons and symbolism. Sometimes, as with the title, this is a relatively straight-forward task, at other times, however, the play can be tricky to decode. The exact significance of the three dead or nearly-dead birds (one for each of the three women) that feature in the beginning, middle, and end of the drama was a topic of heated debate after the final curtain. I’m also convinced that there’s some kind of Judeo-Christian imagery at play (the textual source of the Leviathan is the Old Testament, and the three women themselves definitely evoke, at times, a gender-swapped religious trinity), but others would, I’m sure, disagree.

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Leviathan is a strange, short stab of a play. I don’t think I laughed as hard as other audience members, but this isn’t because the play isn’t funny (it is, very), but because my own viewerly inclinations tend to gravitate towards the bleaker, more gothic interpretations of what’s happening. Either way, there’s an unnerving sense of cognitive dissonance at play between the black comedy of  Leviathan’s surface, and the emotional turmoil of its subtexts. It’s really, really good.

As a final note, it would be remiss of me not to mention the format of the production, which is the debut in Wales of the much-lauded (and hopefully self-explanatory) ‘A Play, A Pie and A Pint’ theatre scheme, which aims to make theatre less of a big deal, and more something that you might visit in a lunch hour, or immediately after work. The overall opinion is that this was a resounding success at the Sherman Theatre last night; the food and drink augmented the drama with a social element that encouraged both pre- and post-performance discussion amongst audience members. I very much hope that this is future of theatre, and I hope it’s not too hyperbolic to suggest that the recent take-over of the Sherman by artistic director Rachel O’Riordan signifies a coming renaissance of stage drama in Wales.

Leviathan is currently being performed at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff. March 24th – 28th. Go see it!

The Violent Century – Lavie Tidhar

The Violent CI was wary going in to this, mostly because my experience with superheroes is primarily visual (comics, films, TV etc. maybe videogames), and I couldn’t quite imagine how they would work in a medium sans the ocular spectacle that perhaps defines the whole genre. Happily, however, Lavie Tidhar focuses on the emotional and philosophical implications of superhero-ness, using an idiosyncratic prose style to do the jobs usually covered by comics’ bright colours, or cinema’s loud noises and flashy flashes.

The Violent Century has two narrative focus points: the first is a grounded-in-reality presentation of 20th-century history, with the novel roughly covering the whole thing up until 9/11. The second focus is a fantastical superhero element: Dr Vomacht invents something (what he’s invented is never quite explained), turns it on, and in doing so creates hundreds of superheroes (“Ubermenschen” in the vernacular of the novel (with all the Nietzschean stuff that name evokes)), all with various – though on the whole familiar – powers: super speed, super strength, control over the elements etc. Using the conceit that the newly-created Ubermenschen don’t age, the novel tracks the entire century through the eyes of the same characters, chiefly the British heroes Fogg (who can make fog, duh), and Oblivion (who can vanish things within a few feet of his body).

And it’s really, really brilliant.

It’s not technically an alternate-history, as the presence of the Ubermenschen doesn’t change the course of the 20th Century as we know it. This is explained with the slick (if somewhat eye-brow-raising) rationale that the presence of British and German and Russian and American (etc.) superheroes all kinda cancel each other out, historically speaking. There are minor differences played for darkly comedic effect (Stan Lee, who in a world populated by superheroes never becomes a comics writer, is present at the Adolf Eichmann trials, for example), but otherwise this is history as we know it. In this regard the novel reminds me of Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis (not sure if Tidhar would thank me for that comparison, though), which also uses a fantastical narrative framework as a means of writing about horrific historical events.

The Second World War takes up most of the novel’s non-linear narrative, and even after the war is over, its long shadow dominates the lives of our protagonists (if you want to be really twee about it, you could argue for a corollary between the effect the War had on history, and the effect it has on the characters. Meh, maybe.).

Fogg and Oblivion begin with relative wide-eyed optimism, a sense of moral duty and a willingness to serve king and country. As the novel, and time, progress, however, the distinctions between good and evil begin to blur (a critique of the unrealism of the black-and-white morality espoused by traditional superhero narratives, perhaps?); once solid relationships become unstable: endless, endless wars take their toll, and depression, drug addiction, loss and a sense of not-belonging and no-place begins to dominate the lives of the Ubermenschen. In this regard the inner lives of the characters tracks nicely with the philosophical development of the 20th Century, from certain-of-itself formalism, through to an anxious and lost postmodernism.

So rather than being about how history might by changed by superheroes, The Violent Century ponders how superheroes might be changed by history. Perhaps this is a wry dig at the subjectively ahistorical nature of comic books (let’s face it, Captain America would be utterly fucked-up after everything he’s been through). It’s profoundly moving, and Tidhar’s major achievement is to simultaneously discuss violent, shocking historical realities and the fantastical nature of superpowers, without ever letting the superhero element undermine the seriousness of the book’s historical subject, and, for the nerds amongst you, I guess, vice versa.

Indeed, as the notion of the superhero seems to be the major pop-cultural zeitgeist force of the 21st Century, I guess it’s only to be expected that such narratives would eventually yield-up a lens through which we can understand real-world events. Events so horrific (the Holocaust) as to be unspeakable in the literary-realist medium?

Okay so I’m totally not sure about that last paragraph. I just kinda splatted it out. So maybe, if I can risk a cliché, I should just say that it seems apropos of superheroes’ developing maturity that books such as this are now being written. Not that the youthz of today can’t understand history unless it’s filtered through the lens of comics or anything.

Stylistically the book is influenced by hardboiled noir. Short, often verb-less sentences are the grammatical standard, which cleverly functions as both a call-back to the pulp literature that dominated genre writing for most of the century, and the punchy scene-setting text boxes used by comics writers for exposition. Augmenting this parallel is the fact that the whole book is written in the present tense (unusual for historical fic), and with frequent parenthetic asides in the second person “we”. It’s stunning how Tidhar has contrived a narrative style that echoes his book’s thematic convergence of 20th-century history with superhero genre fiction. Proof, if proof were needed, of the old literary-critical maxim that the story a book tells is inseparable from the way it is told.

***

My friend Thom and I often have this discussion about how difficult it is to invent a new superpower that hasn’t already been done in comics. This discussion usually involves me suggesting stuff, and Thom (who has a truly encyclopaedic knowledge of comics) responding with “nope, that was done in x” and “nope, y already thought of that”.  Well, I defy anybody to find a pre-existing version of the character Sommertag’s super power, which I won’t spoil because it’s an incredible idea, equal parts wonderful and heart-rending, and really should be encountered for first time when you actually read the book.

Sommertag’s plot is probably the most divisive aspect of the novel, tbh. Her introduction hails the beginning of a love story which, for me, really works, and is genuinely moving. But I’m aware that for readers of a different caprice, this part of the plot veers dangerously close to the saccharine, with the potential to bathetically undermine the seriousness of the novel’s historical focus.

Either way, you should all read The Violent Century because it’s imaginative and dark and controversial and tragic and beautiful all at once.

The Martian – Andy Weir

The MartianContext:

The Martian was self-published by Andy Weir back in 2011, and after gaining momentum on his website and, later, Amazon, it was picked up by a mainstream publisher and became the breakout Science Fiction mega success of 2014 (Ridley Scott’s movie adaptation starring Matt Damon is being filmed this very moment!).

This all happened to the bafflement of the SFF community, as, by almost any measure, The Martian is a terrible novel. It comprises all of the negative traits that non-SF readers stereotypically associate with the genre: it’s badly written, technical to the point of tedium, offers no psychological or emotional insight into its characters or the ways in which their situation changes them, and just generally has nothing to say about anything.

It would seem easy to accuse the Science Fiction blogosphere of a kind of literary hipsterism at this point: an SF novel finally breaks into the mainstream, and it’s charged with being the “wrong kind” of Science Fiction. There’s more than a little having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too about this objection to The Martian’s success, but to be honest it’s a position I kinda sympathise with: The Martian is a long way from the being the sort of novel I’d like to see “representing” the state of early 21st-century Science Fiction, a genre significantly more diverse, creative and human-centric than The Martian would lead you to believe. This jacket quote in particular seems like it was specifically deployed to troll hardcore fans of literary SF:

Don’t be put off thinking this is a sci-fi book – it’s so much more than that.

 *shudders*

The Martian

The premise is a good one: Mark Wahlberg… I mean “Watney”… is stranded on Mars after his crew have blasted back to Earth following a mission-aborting dust storm. Now he’s awaiting rescue, surviving on potatoes, disco music, his absurdly encyclopaedic knowledge of all of science, and more potatoes.

It’s an epistolary novel, made up of Watney’s daily mission logs (unfortunately my hopes that The Martian would develop into some kind of Clarissa in Space were soon dashed by the novel’s utter lack of self-awareness and irony. Darn shame). And while this epistolary structure carries all of the usual benefits of that form (short chapters that can generate a nice momentum, and an excuse to skip the action forwards over the boring bits), The Martian is bafflingly impersonal. The greater part of the novel consists of straight-forward physical descriptions of Watney fixing stuff “I moved here. I put this there. I screwed-in that” etc. There’s a bit towards the middle when it looks as though Watney is about to skirt the issue of his loneliness, but just like his trusty Martian rover, the novel deftly avoids any such difficult terrain in favour of the flatter, easier narrative landscape of scientific technocratic blah. It’s frustrating that the epistolary form, tailor-made to expose a character’s innermost thoughts and fears, is used in such a cold, soul-less manner.

Watney’s voice is the major problem with the novel. The a-to-b-to-c mechanisations of the plot are perfectly serviceable, and I’m confident that this will be a much better film than it is book, purely because cinema can get away with presenting a depthless sequence of improbable crises in a way that novels really can’t (that and The Martian belongs to a particular sub-genre of Hard Science Fiction that’s cinematically en vogue right now (think Moon, Gravity, Interstellar etc.), and which can probably get by on its visual spectacle sans any genuine emotional content).

The narration just did it for me. Watney’s voice is part physics textbook, part sarcastic teenage blogger. Ugly words like “really” and “got” are repeated ad nauseum:

So Houston got understandably nervous when we got whacked with 175kph winds. We all got in our flight suits and huddled

And very un-astronaut-like internet-speak peppers the narrative. Most irritating is the parenthetic “Yay me”, which is used so often as to become a refrain (and soon begins to feel like the writer congratulating himself on having regurgitated some especially technical piece of research).

Many reviewers have commented that it’s Watney’s wit and “personality” that make the novel, but I don’t see it. To me the ill-fitting interjections of teen-speak are just shallow; too-obvious attempts to create the illusion of personality.

There’s no examination of Watney’s emotional situation: fear, regret, wonder, loneliness are barely mentioned. The emotion that’s described in most detail is boredom which, I think, says a lot about Andy Weir’s imagination. I was hoping for some wilderness writing, for a sympathetic fallacy that described the surrounding Mars-scape in emotional terms and used the empty backdrop as a mirror for Watney’s lonliness, but nope: nada. Unless, of course, you consider the barrenness of the prose to be a stylistic reflection of the arid Martian sand dunes…er..

Things hit rock bottom when Watney starts explaining his own jokes:

‘Over the past few days, I’ve been happily making water. It’s been going swimmingly (see what I did there? “swimmingly”?)

Which juxtaposes awkwardly with all of the high-level science in the book. There are pages and pages and pages of this:

Every twenty hours, I’ll have 10 litres of CO2 thanks to the MAV fuel plant. I’ll vent it into the Hab via the highly scientific method of detaching the tank from the MAV landing struts, bringing it into the Hab, then opening the valve until its empty. The oxygenator will turn it into oxygen in its own time. Then I’ll release hydrazine very slowly over the iridium catalyst, to turn it into N2 and H2 […]

Which while impressive in a “look how much research I’ve done” kinda way, is only bearable in small doses. I have no objection whatsoever to Hard Science Fiction, but I prefer it when the aesthetic modus operandi isn’t to achieve a narrative style identical with that of undergraduate physics textbooks.

After 10, 20, 30 pages of the stuff, it all becomes so much white noise. If you want to be generous, you could probably argue that the enormous swathes of physics is a meta-narrative attempt to instil in the reader the same sensations of zen-like boredom being experienced by our stranded protagonist. If that was Andy Weir’s intention, then, bravo, I guess.

But is it even Science Fiction though?

One thing The Martian has encouraged me to do, though, is to start thinking, once again, about that age-old literary problematic of how to define Science Fiction. Because the niggling thought I kept having while reading it was that, whatever The Martian is; it isn’t Science Fiction.

I guess this comes full-circle to my earlier comments about literary hipsterism, and I hope the following doesn’t sound like a hand-wringing attempt to rescue Science Fiction’s critical reputation by claiming that the most scrutinized SF novel in years isn’t actually SF at all, because these are genuine thoughts I had while reading…

Like many SF fans on the critical left, I’ve always been enamoured of Darko Suvin’s definition of Science Fiction, which, while imperfect, remains incredibly fruitful:

A literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.

Key to genre fiction, for me, is this idea of estrangement and alterity. Yet despite being set almost entirely on Mars, The Martian manages to be one of the least estranging novels I’ve ever read. The language is prosaic, the narrator is aloof and the text never engages with the otherness of its setting. The rigorous devotion to realism, present-day technology and scientific verisimilitude cloys up the narrative: there’s no attempt at extrapolation, imagination or wonder, or to find meaning through the other.

Realist fiction attempts to echo the world by representing it as faithfully as possible (to monumental hubris, in my opinion), whereas SF speaks about the world by making it strange, and in doing so reveals and highlights deeper truths; Science Fiction is a literature of metaphor. The Martian makes no effort at metaphor, attempting to recreate experience as mundanely and accurately as possible, and in this regard has more in common with mimetic literary realism than Science Fiction. Nothing about the book is unfamiliar, and the constant internet speak, the paratextual assertions that all the technology is real, and the occasional chapters that feature CNN news reports about how Watney has become a celebrity back home make the whole thing so inescapably familiar. How can a book set on Mars feel so parochial?

The Martian fails as Science Fiction because rather than estranging the reader from their everyday context, all the book gives us is… the recognisable. Potatoes and disco music.